Raleigh Mennonite Church
Sept 4, 2016
A few weeks ago I was taking a writing class near St John’s Abbey in Minnesota. And while I was there I spent some time with Abbott John, the leader of the Benedictine community.
Whenever I’m at St John’s I make a point to attend morning prayer with the monks. In the choir behind the altar there’s a section for the brothers, and then a section for people like me. At exactly 7am the brother process in through the back of the sanctuary, robed in their identical black habit. We pray our way through the psalms, lift our chants, intercede for our world, remember the saints, and then we go to breakfast.
But something happens in between, in those short minutes between morning prayer and meal. Almost all the brothers change out of their robes. I pick out most of them in the cafeteria, talking to students, waiting for the timer on the waffle maker, ladling scrambled eggs onto a plate, all of them blending in with the rest of us, wearing suits and ties or sweatpants or t-shirts.
I asked Abbott John – what’s that about?
He told me that the habit functions to identify their community–and the place where they need to recognize each other is in prayer, because that’s when they are all together. That’s the time the habit matters – that’s when they are to remember that they are a body, when they look around and see other selves looking back at them.
I was thinking about the monks as I read today’s Scripture. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, to his trial, to his death. And along the way he has found himself greeted and fed and believed by scores of people.
But eating with Jesus, walking with Jesus on the road – that isn’t the same thing as being a disciple. Being a disciple means something else. Being a disciple means constantly reassessing the core of your self-identity. It means being willing to reassign that identity based on the words of a ragged, homeless carpenter who, I must say, rather flippantly tells you to skip the next family reunion. “Whoever comes to me,” Jesus says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
In one way, Jesus’ difficult words in Luke 14 are a way to weed people out, to thin the crowd. This is like the organic chemistry course of med school. It’s there to show you how hard it can be and that this isn’t for everyone. Carrying the cross, whatever that means, has something to do with death, something to do with leaving behind family, friends, neighbors–the basic components that make up our identity.
But if discipleship is being called out of one place of identity-making, it is also being called into another. It is being called into a body.
Last weekend some of us were on the church retreat. On Saturday morning we gathered outside the main lodge to get ready for the low ropes course. I was ready to walk down with everyone, through the woods and to the area where we would be working together. But instead we were handed blindfolds.
The instructor told us that one of us would be the car, and one would be the driver. That translated to me being blindfolded while Kim stood behind me. She couldn’t speak but we came up with a system for communicating: right, left, brake, accelerate. And we were off.
The way was slow, over rocks and roots, slight rights, adjusting course. But Kim was a good guide. I trusted Kim. I trusted that she wouldn’t let me show up to worship the next day with a black eye from running face first into the limb of an oak tree. It was trust that grew as we walked, as I saw how attentive she was to rises in the root structure, how she slowed my pace or adjusted to keep me out of the way of the trees. She taught me what to do when we changed roles, when she couldn’t see anymore, when I was the one guiding her along a path filled with obstacles.
Along the way, through the trees, we became a body. As we walked, together, I was reminded that the church is also called out of familial identity and into a body, called into a life where we look out and see ourselves staring back. It’s a risky proposition because being a body is risky. Being a body means continuing on the way when a part of the body is sick, when a part of the body is weak. Being a body mean being affected by those who make up the body, to recognize that the health of the body is bound up within its parts. It means trusting that the part that can see is taking you to a place where you will be well.
We are a church, the body of Christ, and we are on the way, through the trees. And when it begins to matter that you’re a body, when that starts to become clear, is when you find yourself walking where there are obstacles, when roots and rocks and branches are on the path.
Dear friends, there will always be roots and rocks and branches on the path. If there is one thing Jesus assures us of, it is that our journey to discipleship will be marked by conflict. Conflict with each other, with our community, with our culture, with the world. There is no getting out of it. There is no way around it. It is the way.
What it means to be a body, to pick up your cross, is to walk along this rocky path and to trust the body with your life, to trust that, even as other relationships become tenuous and fail—to trust that we are figuring out a way through this, to trust that Jesus has brought us here, together, as a body, as part of one another.
I cannot guarantee you much, but I do know this – we will disagree. At some point you and I will find ourselves with political differences, or with different theological priorities. One of us will say the wrong thing. Probably me. We’ll mess up. We may hurt each other. We’ll forget that we’re a body, forget that we need each other. At some point we’ll have to do something hard, to make a difficult decision. We’ll feel our body groan. I know this because Jesus promises us that this is going to happen: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me,” he says, “cannot be my disciple.”
I also believe that Jesus promises us that we have everything we need to be a body. We have everything we need to tell each other how we are doing at the work of being one body, together. And we need to talk to each other, to figure out the signs to communicate when there are roots ahead, when we need to slow down, when our body is tired, when we need take more time, or when we need to take bolder steps to get further down the trail.
That’s what I’m hoping for us, for this part of the body of Jesus Christ that is made up of you and me. I’m hoping that when we disagree, when things are difficult, when we’ve fallen down, that we’ll let each other know we were hurt, that we’ll take the time to find each other, to say that something difficult happened and we need to make it right. I hope that we’ll take time to pay attention for the ways that the body is fragile, fragile in grief and sorrow, vulnerable to rejection, the times when we will need to be led by those who can see what we cannot see.
And when we count the costs and say yes, when we voluntarily give our lives over to being in this body, we do not simply become a sign of Jesus, a sign of peace, a sign of the resurrection. We actually become the risen body of Christ. We become Easter. This is why we sing those words, “we are each other’s bread and wine.” You become the broken body. You become the body taken into my body, a body always rediscovering itself, always coming to see itself anew, always in resurrection.
In the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia wrote a rule for his monasteries, the Rule of St Benedict. One of my favorite sections is called On the Reception of Guests. I love that these brief paragraphs are squeezed between a chapter called “Brethren Who Go Not Very Far Away” and “Whether a Monk Should Receive Letters or Anything Else.” The Rule is a practical guide, a way for a body to function in all its minutia.
So when a Benedictine monk is greeted by a stranger, the instructions are precise and practical. “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He (Jesus) is going to say,” writes Benedict, “ ‘I came as a guest, and you received me.’”
When a guest arrives, it is as if Jesus Christ has come, as if the body of God, the body of which you are a part, has entered the room. This guest should be announced so that everyone can greet her with charity. The monks are to lay themselves on the ground before her, because they are adoring Christ in this stranger. There is foot washing. If there is a fast it is broken to provide food for the guest. The poorest are to be received with the most lavish welcome because, it says, “it is especially in them that Christ is received.”
Can you imagine them, the monks opening the door for the old beggar woman who knocks, meekly, hoping for some table scraps? A brother looks back at her, surprised and delighted. Rejoicing, he calls to the others – Jesus Christ has come to stay with us. He looks back at the woman. He sees his face, another self, looking back. He falls down before her, in adoration, in devotion.
We are not a body for ourselves, constantly assessing who is in and who is out, always policing our boundaries. We are a body that is constantly being surprised by who we already are, by discovering who is already within us, discovering how we are always becoming a body, always reconstituting, always following Jesus’ call of discipleship to seek the body’s grace.
This makes us incredibly vulnerable. We are picking up a cross when we say that we will no longer place our identity in family relationships, but instead that we will be a body, that we’re open to being remade by others, returning again and again to a looking back and seeing each one as Jesus. It’s a risky proposition. We do not enter into this life lightly.
I also know that there is nothing else I would want than to be a body with you, to be the risen body of Jesus, to see myself staring back in each stranger, to see myself when I look at you. I know that you will be there when I cannot see the way, and that is enough. I know that at times we will be walking a long time, and you may think we’ve been forgotten me. I know there will be times when it will seem like we’re going to run face first into nettles. And then I’ll feel the tap on my shoulder. We’re together, because you are here. We are each other’s bread and wine. We are a body.