Skip to content

Bridging the Military/Civilian Divide

December 15, 2018
This post was co-written by D. Glen Miller and Christian J. Nickels

One of the most powerful quotes we’ve read in a long time comes from a nearly century-old text: “War is like a comet—the tail is longer than the star itself.” 1 The tail of course is the aftermath of War. Some Americans are stunned to know that more Vietnam veterans died in the 15 years after the War’s end then are memorialized on the Wall. Most of these deaths were premature and caused by Agent Orange, wounds, suicide or drunkenness. Current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have their own legacy. Approximately nine (9) soldiers/marines/airmen/others are wounded for every war zone death. The Defense Department of the United States reports that 20 active duty or veterans kill themselves every day. That is 7,300 in one year. Compare that to the combined war zone deaths of 7,652 to date. Starting with Vietnam and carried forward the carnage is significantly higher after the War.

 

The more we learn about moral injury, PTSD, reintegration into civilian life, and other things that veterans face the more poignant the tail of the comet named War. Since war affects us all in small and large ways civilians need to understand and eventually empathize with the difficulties, uniqueness and gravity of the War experience. We certainly need more than the current refrain of “thank you for your service.” The refrain is quite often received as sincere but disingenuous. The phrase “TYFYS” may further distance the military from civilians because the soldier, marine or other military person knows that American citizens rarely experience the violence and moral dilemmas encountered in war zones. More importantly military personnel realize that war is not front page news and is secondary to most of our daily politics. George Bush famously said that civilians should go shopping and that the military will take care of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In our view he said that war-making is not part of the American civilians’ responsibility. Rosy the riveter would be turning over in her grave.

 

Another way to describe the separation and distancing between military and civilian is called “performative allyship.” We learned of this term from an article by Logan M. Isaac that called attention to its practice. 2 Performative allyship, to us, looks like a device that ends up further separating the lives and experiences of military members and civilians. The phrase, “TYFYS,” is probably a fine sentiment on the surface. But the problem is that it stays on the surface. One author of this article is a combat veteran. He is open to it, but it’s kind of an awkward thank you. We have heard veterans’ wonder if they should reply to TYFYS with a comment like, “what do you know about my service?” That reply would create an awkward space in the conversation. Yet, we think that awkward spaces can be a path toward growth. Previous agendas could go to the wayside, leaving an opportunity to explore new ground together.

 

This connection is important because soldiers need allies and support from their nation. This support is voiced but action is limited. Veterans know, for example, if they need medical support when discharged there will probably be a long line at the VA. Funds are limited everywhere. However, our military knows there is plenty of money for war making but little for repair of the mind and body of those that fight. U.S Marine Corps veteran and author Phil Klay describes this experience in a piece he wrote for the Atlantic. 3 He has fought in our current war on terror and he sees a detachment between our military people and civilians. He questions if service members can “maintain a sense of purpose when nobody-not the general public, or the Congress elected to represent them, or the commander in chief himself-seems to take the Wars we’re fighting seriously.” 4 Ask yourself the last time you read or heard news coverage regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Klay writes, “American service members are willing to sacrifice their lives for one another and for their country. In return, they ask only for a mission that is moral and achievable.” 5 We wonder if “TYFYS” is seen as an insincere thank you because the receiver knows that after 17 years of War nobody cares enough to scream “What are we doing in Afghanistan and Iraq??”

 

Being a soldier, marine or other serviceman or woman is not just another job. It requires skill, strength, endurance and savvy. Most of all, fighting in a war requires purpose. A civilian may continue to go to work, perform and collect a pay check while he or she finds the corporate mission to lack meaning and higher purpose. On the other hand, a soldier is expected to fight to the death. That is almost impossible to do just for a pay check. To face violence and constant danger there must be a moral imperative. War fighting is not just a job. Klay notes that morale is perilously low because “after nearly 17 years of war, service members have seen plenty of patriotic displays but little public debate about why they’re fighting.” 6

 

We have noticed the continued distancing between our military friends and our neighbors in the community. We do not live near a large military base but those veterans and their families that we do know are suffering from 17 years of war. We meet and speak with veterans and their families. Morale is not high and people are worn out. The stress of numerous deployments is breaking the strongest of personalities. Moreover, getting help is not easy and certainly not swift. Furthermore, the VA does not seem to have adjusted to prolonged war and the severity and quantity of injury because of the type and length of these wars.

 

These issues will not be solved easily and addressing them might feel awkward. But we need a compassionate willingness to move down that path. Perhaps learning to engage in deeper, mutual conversation and relationship can help bridge this divide. We wonder if civilians could learn to respond in ways that create better opportunity for relationship? Instead of “TYFYS” being the beginning and end of their veteran engagement, what if it was followed up with, “Can you tell me about your service sometime? I would be glad to listen.” This response will demand greater participation and commitment from us as civilians, because it’s not something you can simply say and walk away. And honestly, more needs to be required of us as civilians.

 

As this realization has emerged for us, we have also sensed connections to a foundational instruction in our faith—to “love your neighbor.” 7 We cannot love our neighbor if we are not truly listening and growing in relationship with them. A willingness to go deeper into this kind of relationship may be a good first step in helping to take the “performative” element out of allyship.


Glen Miller was deployed as an Army Ranger in Vietnam, 1969 – 1970. In 2010 he founded Veterans Community Network a non-profit with a mission to educate the greater Philadelphia area regarding Post Traumatic growth. Glen also teaches ethics and leadership within the Fox School of Business, Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pa.

Christian J. Nickels (MACL Eastern Mennonite Seminary) lives in Schwenksville PA, and partners with community members seeking to help veterans return home and find healing from trauma. Chris is the pastor of Spring Mount Mennonite Church in the suburbs of Philadelphia.


  1.  Corinna Haven Smith and Caroline R. Hill, Rising Above the Ruins in France: An Account of the Progress Made Since the Armistice in the Devastated Regions in Reestablishing Industrial Activities and the Normal Life of the People (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920) 153. 
  2.  Logan M. Isaac, “Why ‘Thank You for Your Service’ May be Performative Allyship at its Worst,” Medium, March 27, 2018, https://medium.com/pewpewpress/thank-you-for-your-service-is-performative-allyship-at-its-worst-c9611bb3cde5. 
  3.  Phil Klay. “Two Decades of War Have Eroded the Morale of America’s Troops,” the Atlantic, May 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/05/left-behind/556844/. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:34-40. 

A Refugee Reflection

December 14, 2018

I heard this new song today, Away From The Manger: The Refugee King, and it is both a moving and powerful reprise of a familiar Christmas hymn (the lyrics are available at the link). Listening to it led me to open up the gospel of Matthew and reflect on the story from which it is based. I invite you to do the same, by reading the scripture text below and then watching the video.

Consider the story of Jesus’ incarnation, the experience of his family and the dangerous path they navigated, and also how this story relates to the harsh realities that refugees face today.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (Matthew 2:13-15 NRSV)

Eastertide

April 18, 2016

In our congregation‘s worship time yesterday, an appreciation for our local climate was expressed. In this part of the country we typically experience distinct seasons of winter, spring, summer, and fall. Most years, each season receives its due time-even if winter feels like it lasts much longer than the others, and even if we do get April snow once in a while. Each season offers a gift if we choose to accept it-a gift of time.

We also have seasons in our spiritual life. The current season in the Christian Liturgical year is traditionally called “Eastertide,” meaning “Easter time” or “Easter season.” It’s a time to celebrate-Christ is risen! It’s a time when we we are most likely to say the word “indeed.” We believe that the resurrection of Jesus was the incredible institution of everlasting life. Easter helps us to envision and embody the new life Jesus taught his disciples to pray for. I like how my friend Drew Hart described it:

Everything hinges on the resurrection of Jesus. It is the game changer. Much more, it is the initiation of a new order of justice & peace.(1)

How are we noticing new life? How are we participating in the new way of justice and peace? We celebrate this resurrection and new life on Easter Sunday…and we keep going.

One day is not enough time to celebrate Easter.

The early Christians seemed to agree. They gathered for meals and worship on Sunday, the beginning of the week. The gospel writers all noted that the world changed on “the first day of the week.”(2) Each Sunday then, no matter what time of year, is a celebration of resurrection. We probably need more than one day to celebrate, to learn how to notice the new life around us, and to live into our role in the new creation.(3)

Throughout Eastertide this year our congregation has been looking for signs of new life and creating space to share these observations with one another when we gather. In the course of our meal liturgy yesterday, I was reminded of one that brought the Easter story to life for me in a new way.

Shortly before Easter Sunday, one of our church members told me that he had to move the “stone of help.” Our congregation has a stone that we use as an Ebenezer stone (1 Sam 7:12). During a worship gathering each August we write on this stone all the ways God has helped us in the past year. Then the stone is placed in a garden near the entrance to the meetinghouse, as a weekly reminder of what God has done. This practice helps us remember that God is our help, and is a way to reaffirm our commitment to be the church in this community—to live as Christ’s Body, offering healing and hope.

The thing is, where the stone had been placed last August was a spot where this church member thought something was going to happen. So he moved the stone. And sure enough-as if creation was also observing the Liturgical year (4)-the spring flowers started to return.

EastertideRollTheStone

Photo by Chris Nickels. April 17, 2016

Literally, the stone was rolled away and there was new life!

Indeed!

Alleluia!

I took a picture and share it here as a visual for inspiration and meditation. If you like, comment below and share:

What signs of new life are you seeing?

Blessings to you this Eastertide!


(1) Drew G.I. Hart, Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/Drew.GI.Hart/posts/939092022873289?fref=nf

(2) See Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1.

(3) See 2 Corinthians 5:11-21.

(4) Apparently creation is pretty “high church” in this part of the country.

 

Holy Saturday Living

April 6, 2016
DroneProtest1

Photo by Chris Nickels. Taken on March 26, 2016 outside the drone war command center in Horsham, PA.

I’ve rarely done anything special on Holy Saturday. As a Christian pastor Holy Week is normally full of worship services and and events that help the congregation trace the steps of Jesus to the cross, as well as preparing to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. Saturday is often a time to rest, reflect, and catch my breath in the midst of  the season (and to try to answer the questions about Jesus’ death that my inquisitive children are now beginning to ask).

The bible doesn’t say much about Holy Saturday, though some passages can be helpful for reflection on this day (the lectionary offers Lamentations 3:1–9, 19–24, Psalm 31:1–4, 15–16, 1 Peter 4:1–8, and John 19:38–42). Whatever happened on the original Holy Saturday, we know that Jesus entered into the reality of death. Though we look forward to Easter Sunday, perhaps Holy Saturday could be a formational instrument for followers of Jesus.

Christopher Hays suggests that Holy Saturday should be thought of as a day of quiet and of mission to those who are suffering(1). Claudia Highbaugh notes that “[Holy Saturday] is a day for us to witness to the reality of suffering, even as we call out for God’s presence”(2). I like these ideas and the possibilities for actively living into the Holy Week story.

“Endless war” is a name for a manifestation of suffering and death in our world today. I was a delegate at the Mennonite Church USA Convention last summer, and there we passed a resolution concerning endless war defining it as,

a different kind of war, without traditional armies operating under rules of war. The entire world is the battlefield. The enemy is shifting and ill-defined; sometimes it is a group with a history of recent collaboration with the U.S. Often the enemy is described vaguely as “terror” or “insecurity.” (3)

War becomes a constant state, and one of the ways this is carried out is through drone warfare. The resolution linked above names some of the terrible consequences of using these death from a distance machines. As a follower of Jesus (an innocent killed through state violence), I believe that war is not the will of God and that these tactics which create the opposite of God’s shalom should be exposed for what they are-a path that leads to destruction (Mt 7:12-14). Additionally, many citizens are likely unaware of what is being done in the name of their “security,” the effect this has on innocent people abroad, as well as the consequences for drone operators at the controls.

The resolution had three action steps. The first was to call congregations to renewed the emphasis on trusting God and the way of Jesus instead of violence. The second calls our denomination to “ministries of healing and renewal in response to the moral injuries experienced by those who feel the guilt for having killed in the name of security and experienced by those who feel no guilt for the killing done on their behalf.” The third action step involved seeking public ecumenical witness(4), demonstrating the spirit of Psalm 20:7:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Since the resolution passed I’ve wanted to find ways to begin living it out. One way I do this with my congregation is through participation in a local church and veterans network. Through this network we have had members trained in trauma awareness specific to veterans (and their families), and we have also participated in coordinated public witness to show love to veterans who are suffering from tremendous burdens. I have also felt the desire to personally commit to a more active peace witness in light of the harsh realities of “endless war.”

So on Holy Saturday this year I attended a protest. The base where the drone command center is located is very familiar to me, as I grew up nearby. Here I met a number of faithful peacemakers who instantly welcomed me into the cause. For a few hours on a Saturday we held our signs at one of the Philly suburbs busiest intersections as hundreds of vehicles passed by. Some drivers showed their displeasure with unpleasant comments and hand gestures. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the greater number of travelers who honked in support of the witness or gave a thumbs up. I also noticed some drivers slowing down to read the signs and banners as they drove past. If they become interested in learning more, then perhaps this was a small sign of renewal in these brief moments.

I’ve tried to put myself into the story of the original Holy Saturday, thinking about what it would have felt like from the perspective of those who were there. Being touched by tragedy, feeling completely overwhelmed, and not having the benefit of knowing what would happen on the third day, means I would just have to live into the reality of the present day. Though I might have an expectation for God’s kingdom to come in Christ, it sure feels like death is winning the day. Life probably kept on going for many other people. And yet it still feels like we should be doing something, no matter how small or insignificant.

50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, 51 had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. (Lk 23:50-56 NRSV)

Joseph went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. And a small group-Joseph and the women-lived into Saturday as they intentionally cared for Jesus. When you believe that all life is precious then when someone dies you acknowledge them, remember them, and faithfully care for them. Perhaps your action could be a witness to the governor-who might learn that even the life of his supposed enemy is precious.

The folks I met at the protest reminded me of these faithful friends of Jesus. They are waiting and working expectantly for peace-some of them have been for decades. They are faithfully doing what needs to be done in the Saturday of violence and death.

I noticed that if a driver yelled an obscenity or made a derogatory comment, the gentleman standing next to me would calmly respond by offering the peace sign to each detractor. As I drove home I continued to think about his simple action and witness. And while on a stretch of route 202 I was reminded of the risen Jesus, who walked around a fearful world offering the greeting, “Peace be with you.” This gentleman was doing a small thing, but it made a significant impact on me. Standing up and offering a word of peace is part of the work on Saturday.

In reflecting on the above Luke text, N.T. Wright offered the following:

“Our part is to be prayerfully faithful in the small things that we can see need doing. We cannot tell what God will then do.” (5)

I met folks at the protest whose witness for peace totally puts mine to shame. They inspire me and give me hope. So I’ll be back again to join them, because there will be more Saturdays and more small things to do to promote peaceful alternatives in the face of fear. And I’ll wait expectantly for what God will do.

Peace be with you.


(1) Christopher B. Hays, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) Kindle Locations 11000.

(2) Claudia Highbaugh, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) Kindle Locations 11150.

(3) “Resolution: Faithful Witness Amid Endless War,” http://mennoniteusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Faithful_Witness_Amid_Endless_War_Resolution_English.pdf

(4) Ibid.

(5) N.T. Wright, Lent for Everyone: Luke, Year C (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 112.

 

Remembering Black History Month

February 29, 2016

 

blackhistorymonthSMMC2

In recent years, in my small Mennonite congregation, we have made it a priority each February to celebrate Black History Month when we gather for worship. This celebration has taken various forms, through: singing African American spirituals (and learning context to the songs), sermons, intentional moments to highlight persons and events in black history, a testimony from a church member, or children’s stories (1). It is important for us to do this as a worshiping community whose membership is mostly white. The practice of celebrating Black History Month helps us to learn history we were not taught, to view the world from the vantage point of those who have been oppressed (and perhaps start learning how to incorporate that perspective into how we do theology), and to grow as neighbors and followers of Jesus. And it is also a small way to demonstrate that #blacklivesmatter, even if the forces of a white dominant society constantly seek to declare otherwise.

There were a number of voices which helped shape our worship time this past month, in which we also were exploring the life and ministry of Jesus during the season of Lent. Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator and an activist, who helped us explore the kind of faith that Jesus (also an educator and activist) was developing in his disciples.

Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.

-Mary McLeod Bethune

With the help of Dr. Vincent Harding we explored the history of a familiar, and often misunderstood, song, “Kumbaya.” Far from being a passive and naive musical exercise, the song is about a deep spiritual truth that can inspire action. It’s a sincere plea for the Lord to “come by here.”

Whenever somebody jokes about “Kumbaya,” my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types to come and help in the process of voter registration and freedom school teaching and taking great risks on behalf of that state and of this nation. … In group after group, people were singing: “Kumbaya. Come by here my Lord. Somebody’s missing Lord. Come by here.”

-Dr. Vincent Harding (2)

Sheyann Webb and Drew Hart helped us explore the defiant and subversive ministry of Jesus as he marched toward Jerusalem in the pages of Luke’s gospel.

Jesus was defiant and determined to continue manifesting his subversive kingdom right within and under the jurisdiction of the powers until he clashed with the establishment in Jerusalem… He would not be turned around. A similar sentiment was expressed in the 1960’s when the people sang that they wouldn’t let anyone ‘turn us around.’ Jesus was on a mission. As his disciples living in a racialized society, we must reenvision what types of prophetic words need to be spoken in our day to unveil the hidden evil forces of oppression and hierarchy, which have been permissible in our society for too long.

-Drew Hart (3)

At this point, please stop reading this post and go order a copy of Drew’s fantastic new book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.

As we reflected on a Luke 13:31-35 we watched a clip from the film about Ms. Webb’s life, Selma, Lord, Selma, to help us imagine modern day expressions of this insistent, prophetic, and subversive way of Jesus.

On a personal level, there are two TED talks which have helped me grow and be challenged toward action. The first features Mellody Hobson and is titled, “Color Blind or Color Brave?”

The second video features Vernā Myers speaking about overcoming our biases and learning to walk toward our discomfort.

These talks invite us to pursue greater awareness-of self, and of the dominant racial frames that exist in society. Both messages are well worth one’s time and are a good invitation toward uncomfortable yet healthy action.(4) One of my responses is to commit to listen deeply and see how these messages can take root in my life.

How did you remember Black History Month this year? What are your favorite practices for celebrating in a congregational context?


(1) This book works well for a children’s story in a congregational setting: The Story of Rosa Parks (Candy Cane Press, 2007), http://www.amazon.com/Story-Rosa-Parks-Patricia-Pingry/dp/0824966872.

(2) “You’ll Never Hear Kumbaya the Same Way Again”, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/youll-never-hear-kumbaya-same-way-again/3860

(3) Drew G. I. Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, (Herald Press, 2016) 66.

(4) Both of these TED talks are part of a Black History Month playlist, which can be found here: http://www.ted.com/playlists/230/10_great_talks_to_celebrate_bl.

The Virtue of Forbearance

November 12, 2015

This weekend our Mennonite conference will meet together as a delegate assembly for our annual gathering. We will be considering a few resolutions about what it means to be church together when we sometimes hold very differing perspectives. In preparation I pulled out an old copy of Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and read from her essay on forbearance-an important word in Mennonite circles these days.

The brittle and divisive climate within the contemporary Christian church has forced me to take more seriously the value of forbearance as a Christian virtue. A conscious forbearance of the sort that Jesus demonstrates so amply in the gospels, and Paul exhorts us to in his epistles… Forbearance may be what has helped the two most ancient forms of Christian community-church congregations and monasteries-maintain their precious and precarious unity. It may be that with good care such unity grows supple enough to withstand the demands for strict uniformity that so quickly produce division.

The polarization that characterizes so much of American life is risky business in a church congregation, but especially so in a monastic community. The person you’re quick to label and dismiss…is also a person you’re committed to live, work, pray, and dine with for the rest of your life. Anyone who knows a monastery well knows that it is no exaggeration to say that you find Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh living next door to each other. Mother Angelica and Mary Gordon. Barney Frank and Jesse Helms. Not only living together in close quarters, but working, eating, praying, and enjoying (and sometimes enduring) recreation together, every day, often for fifty years or more. It’s not easy. But Christian monks have existed for close to eighteen hundred years, almost as long as the church itself.

How do they do it? They know, as one Anglican nun has put it, that their primary ministry is prayer, and that prayer transcends theological differences. They also have the wisdom of St. Benedict, who at the end of his Rule points out that there are two types of zeal; one which is bitter and divisive, separating monks from God and from each other, and another which can lead them together into everlasting life. Employing scripture (Romans 12:10), he defines this “good zeal” as acts of love: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other.”

Monastic people also make deliberate and repeated use of the tools that they believe Jesus Christ has given them to overcome the temptation to condemn one another. They say the Lord’s Prayer together at least three times a day, which is the minimum that St. Benedict sets forth in his rule for monastic life. He says he found this necessary because of the “thorns of contention” that spring up daily when we try to live with other people. Continually asking God to forgive us as we forgive others, Benedict suggests, warns us away from the vice of self-righteousness and also lack of love. [1]

I go back and forth with Mennonites and forbearance. There are times when we demonstrate this posture fairly well and I feel energized. But there are times when we seem incapable of it and I grow weary. I’ve heard the word forbearance used as a synonym for “compromise,” but I think I like Norris’ term better-a “virtue.”

In her description this virtue includes a true commitment to live together, with the tensions but also with the daily activities that are perhaps more spiritual than we realize (eating, playing, working, enjoying). It’s possible that this virtue could be a path to profound spiritual formation if we are willing to walk it.

This virtue also acknowledges a posture that allows for this commitment to one another to become reality-a posture of prayer. I’m being drawn to think about how this kind of prayer posture shows up in Mennonite life. In both denominational and conference settings we prioritize our confession of faith. The problem I’ve observed is that we Mennonites don’t seem very clear on the purpose of a theological tool like a confession of faith. I’m glad to see that one of the statements our local delegates will discuss this weekend names this fact. We lack a shared understanding (is it prescriptive or descriptive?/is a confession the same as a creed?). Which means there’s preliminary work needed if such a tool is to be most helpful for life in our faith community. So what if instead of quoting “the confession” all the time (at least the parts we agree with), we intentionally worked at developing a communal prayer life that might help us transcend our differences? And let’s not just stop at prayer-we can also eat together, play together, serve together, and work together.

Maybe with a different posture we could learn to love each other more in the process. That would certainly be a good witness in our communities.

At a recent meeting with my congregation’s leadership we meditated on a part of Romans 12, seeking to prayerfully let the words sink in and affect our hearts, minds, and lives. So as we continue to think about forbearance, I’ll close with those words and invite us to do the same.

love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12:10-12 NRSV)

 


[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 158-159.

 

Companions

October 27, 2015

 

 

[adapted from a sermon delivered at Spring Mount Mennonite Church on Sunday October 25, 2015]

TableChurchOct2015

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him.

29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32 NRSV)

There’s something powerful and sacred about sharing food at a table.

More than any other gospel writer, Luke presents Jesus eating and drinking with people. 60 examples of this activity have been counted just in Luke’s gospel, so it’s not a stretch to say that Luke presents a theology of eating and drinking. But it’s not only in Luke’s gospel, so clearly this table activity was widely known as part of Jesus’ life and ministry.[1] Therefore, an important way to know Jesus and to join in his mission is to spend time at tables with others. #WhoWouldJesusEatWith?

As a congregation that has been actively exploring how meals can be an important part of spiritual formation I hope that this element of Luke’s writings might be both a challenge to grow further, and also an encouragement in our life together as we seek to display the kingdom of God in our community.

Justo González writes,

Eating and drinking are not only a physical necessity, but also an important element in the fabric of any society. Even to this day, when we sit together with someone at a table, this implies some sort of relationship. It may be a matter of friendship, of business, or of simply trying to get to know each other better. But in any case, sitting with another at a table is both a sign and a way to create and develop relationships. [2]

People who we develop relationships with are sometimes called companions. If you study the origin of the word companion you find an interesting linking of food and relationship. It’s a combination of 2 Latin words: com (“with”) and panis (“bread”). So our English word “companion” means “with whom one eats bread.”[3]

González puts it this way:

“a companion is someone with whom we break bread. In some societies in which violence is frequent and life is unstable, sharing bread is a sign of friendship or at least of respect.”[4]

Sharing meals together creates opportunities, like breaks in busy schedules, maybe even breaks in conflict, and also creates space for deeper relationships to form. Companions can develop friendships, generosity, and comfort, while at the same time lessening fear, scarcity, and isolation.

With this idea in mind, let’s look at the story in Luke 5. To a 1st century Jewish audience, Levi was a despised outsider—someone socially and religiously out of bounds for a person of faith to relate to. But this despised person has turned and followed Jesus (i.e. he “repented”; v.27-28). And then, this despised person throws a great banquet for Jesus.

29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house;

Notice something important here—Levi gave the banquet for Jesus. And Jesus accepted and received this gift of hospitality from Levi. In our zealousness to serve others (especially people who might be less fortunate), do we ever come to the relationship thinking that WE are the ones who have something to offer and THEY just need to receive our help? Can a real relationship ever develop if it’s so one-sided: one side always thinks they have the gift to give and is less willing to also receive the gift from their neighbor? Do we understand the difference between a relationship of paternalism and one of mutuality? In the text, Jesus provides an example for all who wish to engage in service and mission, showing us how to practice mutuality, how to build relationships, and how to receive hospitality.

The key phrase that I’d like to focus on is in v.29:

“Then Levi gave a great banquet for [Jesus] in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them.”

Who is the “them” who Jesus was sitting at the table with? “Tax collectors and sinners,” the despised friends of the despised Levi. It’s clear that these were people that the supposedly “righteous” folks looked at with contempt. It’s often easy for people who are welcomed within a group to have contempt for people on the outside of the group. The narrative of “Us vs Them” is a common and sad reality throughout human history.

Perhaps another reason this upset Jesus’ faith community had to do with what “sitting at the table” meant. The original word used in the Greek text is “reclining”—it could therefore read as “there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others reclining at the table with them.”[5] This reclining posture was common in ancient times. Some meals in those days were intended for deep conversation, and guests would recline around a table for long periods of time. This was no fast-food meal with a little small talk. This was an investment. Reclining at the table involved taking time to really be present with others, discussing important subjects, having conversations, while eating and drinking together.

Sitting at the table was a chance to develop companions. So I wonder if perhaps this was why the supposedly “righteous” folks were getting so uncomfortable? If Jesus was walking around our community today, where would he be reclining at the table? Who would he be eating with? Who’s hospitality would he receive? And who would be upset by his actions?

What can it look like to follow Jesus and live out this text? As we wonder about this, I’d like to share a creative expression that encourages the importance of eating together and developing companions in a diverse and fearful world.

Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that serves a menu from nations the United States is in conflict with. They provide information about these various global locations and host events and discussions. They seek to use

“the social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures, and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of governmental politics and the narrow lens of media headlines.”

I definitely plan to visit Conflict Kitchen the next time I’m in Pittsburgh. [After worship on Sunday, one of the youth in the congregation came up to me and said, “Let’s plan a church road trip!”] I wonder what lessons congregations and denominations could learn from the Conflict Kitchen model, and how it might be an opportunity to bless our communities?

I invite us to imagine what it could mean to embrace Jesus’ theology of eating and drinking and live it out, and imagine what it could mean to sit at the table with others, as Jesus did.

Prayer for today:

Lord Jesus, by your Spirit may you help us
to be people who give and receive hospitality,
to be people who join in your sacred mission of eating and drinking with all neighbors,
to be people who continue to sit at the table,
that we might truly become companions with you and with others
in the abundant life you offer.
AMEN.


[1] Justo L. González, The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 77.

[2] González, 78.

[3] Maria Khodorkovsky, “Etymology of ‘Companion'”. Beyond Words – Language Blog, 29 September 2008. http://www.altalang.com/beyond-words/2008/09/29/etymology-of-companion/

[4] González, 78.

[5] González, 80.