A sermon for Defiance Church, Glenwood Springs
13 November 2016
Setting the Table
Who am I, and how did I get here?
I grew up as a Baptist in Texas. My heart was broken open, and my worldview was transformed when I first travelled to Nicaragua between high school and college and met people who were digging through the trash at the landfill in search of food and items of value that they could sell for a little cash.
The experience in Nicaragua woke me up to the presence of Jesus among the poor, and to the reality that the sort of docile, cultural Jesus that we worshipped in my Baptist church was out there working for liberation in the world. It also woke me up to the poverty on my own turf in Waco, Texas. I began to enter into a new level of consciousness of the world that surrounded me. I began to see people that had previously been invisible to me. I began to notice that the lines of segregation in our town were quite similar to the route that the poverty line ran along. I began to wonder why no one was talking about this? Why we weren’t talking about the systemic realities of racism and poverty, and why we weren’t doing much besides a little bit of charity work in the “inner city” to overcome that sin.
A group of friends and I wanted to do something about it, but we didn’t quite know how. We decided to move into a house on the “other side” of town and live our lives a little bit differently. We established a rule of life that sort of oriented our life together. We prayed together each day, shared a meal together each evening, offered 80% of our income into a common purse, and used a spare bedroom for hospitality. We tried to get to know our neighbors, and the chickens we kept in our backyard proved to be a fairly good way to do so. We invited lots of people into our home, people that had never seen that part of town before. We hosted classes from the local university, we had pot-lucks, dance parties, and house concerts.
After a few years, the community decided it was time to move on. We loved what we were doing, but something inside of us said that it was time to move on with our lives. A couple of us got married, a couple others headed off to law school, another started seminary.
I was finishing up seminary around this time, and Kaylanne and I knew that we wanted to keep leaning in to life in community. Which led us to choose to move back to her hometown, and into a big community house called the Denver Catholic Worker. The DCW was a 19th century Victorian house in the historic Five Points Neighborhood in Denver. The house had nine bedrooms and housed about 15 people at any given time from all sorts of racial, religious, and economic backgrounds.
Kaylanne and I lived in the house for about six months before we got an apartment a couple of blocks away and started working full time in service oriented jobs among people experiencing poverty in Denver. A year or so later, we moved into a house just outside the Five Points neighborhood and started to do a little hospitality and community building of our own. Presently, one of the former guests from the Catholic Worker House lives with us full-time, and two of the former workers stay in our third bedroom at least one night per week when they commute to Denver from a farm about an hour south-east of town.
Around the time we were moving into our own place, I started getting to know Vern Rempel, and another community was born, Beloved Community Mennonite Church. Vern was articulating a vision for a community that seemed in line with the work that I had been doing for the last half decade, and seemed in line with the work that I wanted to be doing down the road and I joined him in his efforts to bring about beloved community in south Denver.
That led me to a conference where I met Matt, and started to learn about your church.
I was standing there in a room full of people I didn’t know, and I saw this guy with a name-tag that read, “Matt Shedden – Defiance Church,” and I thought, “Wow, that seems interesting.” So I asked Matt what that meant, and it was very interesting! Matt told me that Defiance was the historic name of Glenwood Springs, and that name connected you to that past and to your locale right here in the Roaring Fork Valley. He acknowledged that defiance was the stance of the radical reformers who defied the dominant cultural forms of faith in their time, and that the name located you within that tradition. Matt expressed that defiance names the stance of Jesus of Nazareth, who defied death through resurrection in a world intent on destruction.
Better yet, though, Matt made this pivotal turn. He told me that it wasn’t just about being against something but being for something else, something more, something better… that you all are a people of community, a people of tradition, a people of life. It’s a powerful vision, a powerful invitation, and as one who is continuously drawn towards courage over caution, I am excited to be here among you this morning.
Naming fear – turning towards beauty
My topic this morning is fairly audacious, “Opting into beloved community in defiance of fear.” That’s a lot to hold… but I wanted to see what might happen if we brought our two congregations into conversation with one another. I wondered how that might benefit both of us, and what we might learn from one another?
You know, one of the things about defiance is that you can’t defy something that you don’t understand. You have to acknowledge something before you can choose to defy it. You have to see it. You have to recognize it, and name it for what it is.
When children defy their parents, for instance, they are quite aware of who their parents are. They aren’t denying their parents authority, and acting as though it doesn’t exist, they are defying it… acting in opposition to the authority, which they clearly understand.
If we are going to “opt into beloved community in defiance of fear,” we must begin by naming the culture of fear that surrounds us. We have to see it, recognize it, understand it, acknowledge it.
On facebook this week, one of my friends started a conversation that got a lot of traction. I found it helpful, so before we enter into the naming waters, I want to frame with her comments. She said:
“OK FB. Here’s what I propose, no matter where you stand or who you voted for. Let us together curate a list of courteous, possibly ambiguous but nevertheless honest and all-purpose phrases that we can use to say to one another when we are in conversations with those who may or may not share our point of view.
”Makes you wonder”
“A lot to think about”
“In a sense…”
“These are strange times.”
Now, I know we’re still in the early days, but these are strange times we’re living in. In a sense, there is a lot to think about, and it sure makes you wonder… (These are really helpful, right? Ok, on to the naming.)
Over the last several months, we have seen first hand just how dominant the power of fear is over human life. And it really doesn’t matter whether you voted red, blue, third party, or not at all, because fear is a completely non-partisan issue that works for each and every one of life’s campaigns and first manifests itself within our individual lives. The mantra “Do not fear,” appears in scripture long before the American Empire appeared on the scene. We did not create the fear rhetoric that surrounds us.
I don’t know about you all, but I fear so many things… I fear change, for one. Even if things aren’t going all that great, I fear that they could somehow be worse. So I’ve stayed in bad jobs, or bad living situations, or in the midst of poorly managed, indirect, conflict because of a crippling fear of change.
My fear of change is tied in to my fear of the future, of course. I’m afraid of the distant future – of things like retirement, and whether or not the children that I don’t yet have will take care of me when I’m old and possibly have dementia, I’m afraid of illness, and I’m afraid of death. But I’m also afraid of the immediate future because I’m simply afraid of the unknown. I’m afraid of what surprises might unfold and I’m afraid that I might not be able to handle them.
I’m afraid of insecurity. I’m afraid that I won’t have enough to make ends meet. I give in at times, to believing in an economy of scarcity rather than abundance. I’m afraid that my safety, and my community’s safety, might somehow be threatened at any moment. I fear these things.
I’m afraid of otherness. I’m afraid of the strange, the peculiar, and the out of the ordinary. I’m afraid that the approach of otherness might somehow necessitate that I change, and as you know, I’m desperately afraid of change.
Do these fears resonate with anyone? Am I alone in this?
I’m not alone in these fears, and what we do as corporate entities is we institutionalize our fears. We create systems that protect us, and insulate us from our fears, but these systems are firmly rooted in the reality of our fears. **Just look at the unparalleled military giant we’ve built in America, for instance. Our fear of change, fear of the future, fear of insecurity, fear of otherness is stabilized and protected by a nuclear shield, and en ever growing defense budget.**
We live in a culture with a lot of fear, and about once every four years, we spend an entire year talking about those fears as a nation. We turn to those fears, and insight those fears… the fear of change, the fear of the future, the fear of insecurity, the fear of otherness… we let them loose for a little while, we let them run around, long enough to motivate us to act, and create new systems with new leaders that will further institutionalize our fears, and insulate us from the wild, unpredictable world.
Now, I know we’re still in the early days, but these are strange times we’re living in. In a sense, there is a lot to think about, and it sure makes you wonder…
If we name fear for what it is… if we acknowledge it, and understand it… we can defy it. Not deny it, but defy it.
Now defiance can take a couple of forms. One form is protest, a simple protest of fear. Like a child throwing a temper tantrum, protest can be an effective form of defiance for a little while, but it’s an impermanent form because it fails to truly take on a life of its own. Protest isn’t about being for one thing, its simply about being against something else.
A more compelling form of defiance is not a simple protest, but the creation of an entirely alternative, way of existence. Such defiance demands unparalleled imagination and creativity to bring forth something beautiful that is undetermined by that which it defies.
If we lean in, and pay attention, we’ll find that the imagination and creativity to create that beauty lies within us. Just as fear firsts manifests itself within us. It lies within the presence of Jesus within us. Fear lies within us, and the beautiful alternative to fear lies within us as well. These two in tension within our souls.
Beloved community – a place and people for hope, joy, peace, and love
Our lectionary text from the book of Isaiah describes the story of a people who know great amounts of struggle, suffering, and fear. A people that have been exiled from their home… a people that have endured great amounts of change and insecurity… and have returned to find that their beloved Jerusalem has been completely destroyed.
Distraught, and devastated by the reality of the world in which they live, the people of Israel are greeted with the comforting promise that God is about to “create a new heaven and a new earth where the things of old will not be remembered or come to mind.” A new and beautiful thing is on its way, God promises, and that new and beautiful thing will be undetermined by the present reality that it defies.
God promises to build Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
God promises long and prosperous life.
God promises vineyards overflowing with abundance.
God promises a world where enemies will live together in peace. “Where the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.”
In defiance of fear, God greets the people of Israel with a palpable sense of hope, joy, peace, and love, and God declares God’s intent to establish the people of Israel in that place as a people of hope, joy, peace, and love formed by the practices of life in a community of hope, joy, peace, and love.
All of this in defiance of fear, but completely undetermined by the presence of fear. Not simply against fear, but for something better.
In the 60’s, Martin Luther King Jr., articulated a vision for a world undetermined by fear. He borrowed the name for that vision from an American philosophical and theological tradition that included Josiah Royce, Randolph Bruce, and Walter Raushenbusch, and gave it new purpose and meaning. The world in defiance of fear that King was working to inhabit each and every day was called the Beloved Community.
For King, the Beloved Community was the goal of the civil rights movement. It was not simply about protest, and ending segregation, and establishing equality, but about something more. After the Montgomery Bus Boycotts had ended, King said, “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [people].”
For King, the Beloved Community, was a world free of poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, racism, and segregation of any kind. It is a world where love, trust, and peace triumphs over fear, hatred, and violence, and King broke from the American philosophical tradition by insisting that Beloved Community was the product of Divine gift, rather than simple evolutionary patterns. The world was not just gradually becoming better on it’s own, but God was acting in the world as the agent of liberation from beginning to end.
That as God enters into the world in Christ, God continues to pour God’s loving spirit out into the world to bring about the redemption and reconciliation of the entire created order.
The more compelling form of defiance is not a simple protest, but the creation of an entirely alternative, way of existence. Such defiance demands unparalleled imagination and creativity to bring forth something beautiful that is undetermined by that which it defies.
Thankfully, we are in loving relationship with a God who is infinitely imaginative and creative, and in Christ is always pouring that love out into the world to bring about the beauty of beloved community and establish a people of hope, joy, peace, and love on the face of the earth.
The work of the people
Every morning on my way out the door and every evening when I arrive home, I’m greeted by this mural, which is a portrait of the world that I want to inhabit. It’s a world of abundance that is free of competition and full of love across languages and boundary lines.
It’s a world of hope, joy, peace, and love undetermined by fear. In short, it’s the Beloved Community, and the wonderful thing about it is that God is actively creating it, constructing it, enjoying it, all around us, even in the presence of fear.
Our work as the people of God, then, is simply to opt in. To lean in to hope, joy, peace, and love. To choose community and reconciliation. To choose to welcome change and an unknown future. To choose to welcome strangeness and otherness among us, and lean into God’s love as the ultimate source of our security.
There are tangible ways to do this, of course. Ancient Christian practices like liturgy, hospitality, radical availability. Ancient practices through which we enact our opposition to fear.
Fear is all around us. It hovers in the air like a fog, and we know its presence within our hearts. But love is all around us too… the infinite, creative love of God poured out in the Spirit of Christ. And that’s good news for strange times. That’s very good news.
So, “Fear not!” my friends, “For I am with you.” Says the Lord, “And I am going to do a new and beautiful thing on the face of the earth in and through you and your life together in community.”
Do you believe that? Do you believe that God is wanting to do that in you? I do.
May it be so. May we lean in to beloved community in defiance of fear. Amen.