August 13 | An offering of earth and Spirit




An offering of earth and Spirit

Texts: Romans 8:22-26; 12:1-2

Speaker: Joel Miller

On the last day of seminars at Mennonite Church USA Convention I attended one called “Resistance and Healing: Queer, Decolonial Movements.”    This and the entire event this took place within the large Convention Center in downtown Kansas City. One of the panelists was Sarah Augustine, a Pueblo (Tewa) woman from the Pacific Northwest.  In her introduction, she mentioned her morning routine of making a gratitude offering, and joked about the difficulty of finding a patch of grass amidst the concrete and asphalt.  Fortunately, earlier in the day, she had managed for find about a two foot by two foot green spot somewhere nearby where she could touch the earth, an essential part of the ritual. 

As we reflect today about the church – the wider church, the local church, what it means to be church, I’d like to linger with this image from Sarah Augustine — Searching for a patch of earth to touch to make an offering. 

It’s a pretty good description of how I have experienced these national conventions.  Truth be told, I haven’t approached these times with very high expectations.  We are a theologically varied clan, which is fine until some of those convictions involve drawing sharp lines of who’s in and who’s out.  And we do meet in these cavernous convention halls with zero acoustics that swallow up one of the most potentially beautiful parts of gathering – thousands of folks singing in one space, raising our voices in harmony.

But it’s been quite a while since I expected the church to be perfect.  Which is why I like Sarah’s image so much.  Even the wider church can feel like a spread of concrete and asphalt, there are still patches of grass to be found.  There are still places where seeds root and grow and give shade.  There are still places, plenty actually, to make an offering.  

And that was certainly the case at this summer’s Convention.  The theme was “Be Transformed.”  Which is right on for a denomination in the midst of transformation whether we like it or not.  Our Executive Director Glen Guyton shared that in the 22 years of our denomination we have gone from 113,000 members to 50,00.  840 congregations to 509.  21 regional conferences to 16, although another voted to leave after the Convention so make that 15.  Like that vote, the primary reason for this size reduction isn’t because our individual congregations are rapidly bleeding members, but because congregations and whole conferences have left.

And yet a wonderful thing is happening right alongside this.  Those little scattered patches of grass are growing and finding each other and becoming something like a spacious field.  Case in point: At none of the previous Conventions would there be a whole swath of officially approved seminars with titles like:  “Resistance and Healing: Queer, Decolonial Movements.”  The only problem was that the room was too small to hold everybody who wanted to attend.

That phrase “Be transformed” comes from a favorite passage of Mennonites, Romans 12:1-2.  This is how the NRSV puts it, the words of Paul to that little group of Jesus people who gathered in Rome, the heart of the empire: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good, and pleasing, and perfect.”

To which I would only add, how about “perfect enough?” 

That phrase “Do not conform to this world,” is one of the reasons this passage has lodged itself toward the top of the hierarchy of scriptures in our non-hierarchical tradition.  Mennonites/Anabaptists, are, from the beginning, a nonconformist lot.  Not conforming to the union of church and state which the Catholic church has fallen prey to and the Protestant Reformers fell right back into.  Not conforming to inflicting violence on others, even, for the early Anabaptists, to save oneself.  Not conforming to an economics that reinforces inequality.  They did this not for its own sake but because that’s who they understood Jesus to be. 

And then for some generations to follow, after these practices got many of them killed, not conforming to the world meant forming isolated enclaves of shared culture, a kind of PTSD survival response to being in the cross hairs of the church/state apparatus.  This brought its own share of problems.    

A contemporary translation of how Paul uses “world” could be “system.”  “Do not conform to the system.”  It’s something those Roman Christians would have confronted on a daily basis.  And us too here in the heart of the empire.  Thus a seminar on decolonial movements with Sarah Augustine talking about the logic of extraction vs. the logic of decolonization.  And her frank assessment that justice for her does not look like more Native Americans on the board of Wal-Mart, but rather “seeking the just and reordering of human systems.”  She said too many good things to keep up with but I did write that one down.  Or queer leader Annabeth Roeschley in the same seminar telling the youth in the room: “find your people, and if you can’t find them, find me and I’ll help you.”      

Romans 12 also has that bit about presenting our bodies as living sacrifices.  Which points back to what it might look like to make a daily gratitude offering and to have our lives be that offering. 

Because the delegate sessions were happening at the same time as the youth climate summit I didn’t get to experience that.  But bringing the nonhuman world front and center into our very human gathering felt like another important shift in what we prioritize. 

Elsewhere in Romans, chapter 8, Paul writes about the earth groaning.  The whole creation, he says, is groaning as in the pains of childbirth.  He goes on to say that these groans are also happening within us, the work of the Spirit, an act of prayer. 

There’s a vital connection going on here that we moderns have lost, with an assist from Christianity that has easily adapted to and magnified the mind/body, earth/heaven split.    As important as it is to talk about systems and structural injustice I’m on board with those who see our present climate crisis as foundationally a spiritual matter.  You tend not to destroy that which you see as inherently connected to your wellbeing.  Or better yet, something that is an extension of yourself.  We as humans are pretty good at taking care of our family, we’re just lousy at defining our family too narrowly, especially when it comes to the nonhuman world.  It’s hard to buy into an economy that brought us strip mining and massive species die off when you start each day by touching the earth and saying thank you, even if it is just a patch of grass in an urban streetscape. 

This is a multi-generational project and it’s heartening that the wider church is paying attention to how our youth will engage with this. 

Paul gives us a pretty good home base for this in Romans 8, something everyone can do.  Verse 26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  Don’t know how to pray for our ailing world?  No problem.  None of us do, really, says Paul.  But can you sigh?  Can you at least give a groan?  If so, you’re participating in something much larger than yourself.  Or, again, shifting the frame of reference, you’re letting the larger self, the Spirit, express itself through your body. 

And these aren’t death bed groans.  They’re labor pains, verse 22.  The earth is pregnant, which means we’re pregnant too.  And we don’t know what this kid is going to look like when it makes its appearance.  But for now it involves a lot of groaning.  Must be the third trimester.  Must be getting pretty heavy to carry around.  Must be close to birthing time. 

So as our shrinking denomination finds its way forward, I’m seeing all kinds of reasons for hope.  Even if over half of the original members decided they didn’t want to be in the family anymore, there’s really just one family.  And it’s way bigger than the Mennonites.  And it’s way bigger than the USA.  And it’s way bigger than the Christians or even the humans. 

Church is a place where we get to practice being that family.  It’s like weekly Lamaze classes on how to breathe into the new creation.  It’s like a patch of green earth to make an offering in a world that’s still trying to pave paradise to put in a parking lot but maybe at least this time the parking lot could have permeable pavers and eventually we’ll put cars on hospice care and find a better way to get around.  Church is having Sarah Augustine and Annabeth Roeschley and the Apostle Paul as part of your extended family, wisdom guides for the road ahead. 

Except it’s nothing near perfect and too often reflects the exact same system to which we’re trying to nonconform. 

So we touch the earth again.  We remember that we too are earth, just like it’s said in Genesis for all these years.  We thank the Great Spirit that we have another day of life.  We allow ourselves to be transformed, however long that might take.  We feel those groans within us, connecting us to ancestors and our children.  And the ones we’re pregnant with.  And we marvel again that these bodies of ours, and our collective body, can be a living offering.  Holy. Pleasing.  And Perfect enough.