Texts: Acts 12:6-11; Mark 12:28-34
Speaker: Joel Miller
If you’re like me, you didn’t grow up observing All Saints or All Souls Day, or even know it was a thing. Either way, each of us have likely accumulated a few saints over the years. These are the people, living and dead, who exemplify a life well lived. We hear their stories and we want to know more. We don’t need them to be perfect, but we need them to show us something. Something of love, something of courage, something of God. Knowing their stories shapes our own. We need these stories = these lives who were, in the words of Jesus, “not far from kin-dom of God.” They help us see that the kin-dom of God can indeed be not far away.
Hebrews chapter 11 walks through a whole ensemble of characters from the Hebrew Bible – From Adam and Eve’s son Abel, to Abraham and Moses, to Rahab, to the prophets. It follows this up by saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.”
Observance of All Saints and All Souls, in our own Protestant way, reminds us of that great cloud of witnesses. Even though the question “Who’s in your cloud?” sounds like a tagline for a tech company, it would make for an interesting exercise for each of us to do some cloud mapping and compare clouds. “Who’s in your cloud?”
I like to focus this first Sunday in November on someone from our Anabaptist/Mennonite cloud of witnesses. I’m guessing our Anabaptist-of-the-year this time around is an unknown. I hadn’t heard of her until Paula Snyder Belousek, who pastors Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio, brought her up at a monthly CDC pastors meeting a little while back. Margaret Hellwart of Beutelsbach. Anyone ever heard of Margaret? Paula said she often tells her story to youth considering baptism. After today, Margaret Hellwart will be an official member of the CMC cloud of witnesses.
I want to get into her story by way of this week’s gospel lectionary, from Mark 12. That’s where we hear that line from Jesus, “you are not far from the kin-dom of God.” If you were a part of the congregation in 2014 you might recall this passage was one in our Twelve Scriptures Project – when together we selected the Twelve Scriptures that most inform our faith. These twelve scriptures are still preserved in the colorful installation in the foyer over the bench. This passage from Mark got the most votes. So, had it been a one scripture project, this would have been it.
It’s absolutely central because it involves Jesus being asked about what he considers to be central. A scribe, a member of the elite educated class, approaches Jesus with this question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” When you boil it all down, Jesus, what’s it all about?
Jesus frequently responded to questions by posing a better question. But there’s not much to improve on with this one, and Jesus has a direct answer. He combines a passage from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus. To paraphrase: “Love God with all your being, with all you are, your heart, soul, mind, strength,” and “Love your neighbor as if they were you and you were them.” When you boil it all down, it’s about love of God and love of neighbor, and when you boil that down, it’s God who is the Source of all love, continually flowing to us, that enables us to love in the first place.
That’s it. That’s what’s first of all. That’s the center. That’s what most matters.
In the gospels, scribes are mostly portrayed as opposed to Jesus, but this one receives Jesus’s response with gratitude, and adds his own commentary. He agrees with Jesus’ distillation of all the teachings and all the commandments: love of God, love of neighbor. The scribe then adds his own two cents: “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
The scribe highlights a tension that runs through all religion. There are the ethical teachings about how we treat one another, and there are the ritual practices. Love your neighbor – ethics, morals, the relational part of how we live, kindness, mercy, and justice and peace – and the ritual part – perform the burnt offerings, observe the annual holy days, attend church, sing the hymns, take Communion, etc. These two don’t need to be in tension, but without a deep rootedness in the love of God, ritual easily becomes ritualism, habits of religion can easily dull rather than heighten our senses to what really matters. To this insight, Jesus tells the scribe: “You are not far from the kin-dom of God.”
This is where Margaret Hellwart comes in. Because Margaret first became known publicly through her conscientious objection to the ritual parts of the dominant religion of her time. To put it in more plain language, she got in trouble because she stopped going to church. Quite a role model for all of us. But stick with me.
Margaret lived in the village of Beutelsbach. This is in present day southern Germany, close to Stutthgart. In the sixteenth century it was in the circle of influence of the Swiss Brethren movement of Anabaptism. This is the group of Anabaptists who did the first ana-baptizing on record – re-baptizing. Or, as they believed, their first true baptism in consciously choosing to follow Jesus. That was January, 1525.
Their teachings on the need for an authentic inner faith appealed especially to those who had little power within the current economic and religious establishment. There was a renewed emphasis on the teachings of scripture, and the leading of the Spirit. They rejected the use of violence, the sword, within the church.
Many women found an opening in Anabaptism to exercise their own authority outside the rigid male dominated hierarchy of the state church.
Men and women were martyred for their deviant teachings. Anabaptism was a far cry from feminism, but it did threaten social harmony organized around patriarchy.
Margaret Hellwart was not a martyr, so there are no images of her in the Martyr’s Mirror. She was born in 1568, about two generations after those first re-baptisms. We know hardly anything about her until 1608, when she was 40. By that time the Swiss Anabaptist movement had been scattered due to persecution. The heaviest persecution had passed, but Anabaptists were still considered suspect. Because they believed the church should reflect the life of Jesus, the Anabaptists around Margaret would often skip Sunday worship and Communion at the local Lutheran parish, which they saw as being full of unregenerate people. Instead, they would meet in homes and a nearby wood to teach one another the scriptures, pray, and sing. This was actually the primary way of identifying Anabaptists. Look at the church attendance roles and figure out who in town wasn’t showing up on Sunday.
So, in the spring of 1608, we have our first public record of Margaret. Her name appears in a report by the Lutheran General Superintendent to the Synod. They note she’d been warned several times before to attend church and the Lord’s Supper sacrament, but she wasn’t complying.
Margaret had come to same conclusion as the scribe who spoke with Jesus in the temple. A life defined by love was of greater value than simply going through the rituals.
By the way, if you’re visiting today and you’re Lutheran, we love you, and we’re grateful we’ve had plenty of time over the centuries to work on our relationship. Just be sure to sign the attendance pads when they’re passed around during the offering so we know you’re in church.
A local ordinance in Stuttgart made specific reference to a group of very energetic Anabaptist women in the area. Interestingly, most of their husbands weren’t Anabaptists. An initial policy was to exile these women from the region, but the families couldn’t cope without the wives/mothers present, and the public expense to help care for their families became too heavy.
So we don’t want these women getting out of line and causing things to not hold together, but we really need them…in order to hold things together.
So the authorities came up with a new plan. They would no longer exile these women. Instead, they would chain them to the floors of their houses. The chains would be long enough that they could move about and do domestic type things – cook, and care for children – but they couldn’t leave the house and be in conversation with other Anabaptists. I’m guessing the guy who suggested this in the committee meeting was given a promotion.
Margaret was the most prominent of these Anabaptist female leaders. She had two years to avoid the fate of the chain. She was called before the Consistory, the church court, in 1608 and 1609, each time interrogated about her faith and practice, each time ordered to attend the local parish. Each time letting them know in no uncertain terms she had no intention of obeying the orders.
The main source I’m drawing from, called Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers says this: “Margaret Hellwart appears to have been unusually gifted with self-confidence.” One piece of evidence for this was at a later trial, after she’d been chained for six years, it was reported that Margaret had a mocking smile on her face. Because, you know, any sign of self-confidence is surely a mockery to authority.
Perhaps a reason for Margaret’s confidence is that between the years 1610 and 1621, that’s eleven years of house arrest, records show she escaped no fewer than 21 times. Margaret is the Great Houdini of Anabaptism. Each time they found her, they would re-assemble the chain around her ankle, and each time she’d find a way out, visiting mostly with other women in the community, speaking to them about the faith. In one instance, there’s an account of the church superintendent and mayor coming to her house unannounced. After knocking on the door, Margaret didn’t answer right away. But they could hear what sounded like her moving through the house and then putting her chains back on before she opened the door.
How many others throughout history, women and men, have had to give the impression of being chained, when they are in fact free in mind, soul, and body?
One of the scriptures Margaret would share, when she was out and about, was the passage we read from Acts chapter 12 – the story of Peter being freed by an angel from his chains in prison, and going out to the other believers to give them encouragement.
It’s unfortunate we don’t know more about Margaret Hellwart. We have these records, and we have just a few testimonies about her from others. This is how the Profiles book summarizes the testimony about her faith: “God has commanded that people should love one another. Any who live as a Christian are by that fact alone a member of the church.” A friend of Margaret’s named Katharina Koch testified that she didn’t need to attend church because Margaret Hellwart taught her all she needed to know.
These are testimonies from a time when the institutions of the day were utterly failing their people. The structures had become so caught up in preserving their own existence, they had forgotten their initial reason for being. Teacher, which commandment is greatest of all?
We claim Anabaptism as our lineage because Margaret and others rediscovered what is greatest of all. The psychologist James Finley has said: “Love protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things.” James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013)
Considering Margaret’s story makes me think of today’s #MeToo movement.
It is a gift to be living in a time when Margarets are becoming unchained and telling their truth to their sisters and brothers. Aided by angels, allies, and tremendous courage, Margaret is speaking. The institutions that prefer her chained are scrambling to do damage control. We are witnesses to the Spirit at work through her, and we sense that the kin-dom of God has come a bit nearer.
Margaret lived out her life in her home community. Court records of her end when she was in her early 50’s, meaning either she died then, or the authorities gave up bringing her to trial. Historian’s best guess is that she buried in an unmarked grave on unconsecrated ground in Beutelsbach. We consecrate her story today by lighting a candle in her honor.