With Whom Shall We Make Peace

– Jim  Bridges

I offer my remarks in the context of our being a welcoming congregation, one which states on its webpage,

We embrace a tradition of active peacemaking and advocacy for people who are marginalized. We practice nonviolence in our church, community, work, and world, and seek to transform  injustice in all its forms. We take seriously Jesus’ call to love our   enemies and our neighbors as ourselves.

Making peace sounds so easy, but it must not be, given the history of our world and our country.

Today’s scripture reading from 1 Samuel, however, gives us some ideas.  While I must have read it before, I confess that I had not paid any attention to the details.

I was impressed!  To begin with, Abigail definitely is not stuck to or wedded to the past or to tradition.  She is married to a wealthy man, one who is an ally of the present king of Israel.  Unlike many women of that time, however, she does not allow those connections and encumbrances of her husband to hold her back or give her hesitation.  Far from it.  I found her to be creative, independent, and resourceful.  She marched to her own drum.  She maintains her emotional distance from her husband Nabal and from his ties to the king.  She reaches out to others in her circle of friends and acquaintances, finds out what has transpired between her husband and David, and then proceeds to make her own assessment and judgment of the present and future.  She also appears to look within, and in so doing, she measures for herself what would constitute justice.

Although the text does not so state, she appears to listen compassionately to David’s concerns and wants.  She might even empathize with his sense of hurt, injustice, and anger.  Even if she doesn’t do that, she intuitively knows that she and her family face imminent death if there is not some change made quickly.  Regardless of how she perceived things, she breaks with her husband and does not follow his lead or desires.  She expresses to David how her husband Nabal is mean spirited and foolish.

She feels obvious compassion for David, who has treated her husband and her family justly, protecting them, even if such protection was not sought for by them.  Indeed, I can remark parenthetically, in reading of David’s behavior in light of today’s world, it sounded a tad bit like extortion to me.  Nabal had never asked for this protection, so how then does he now owe David?  Nonetheless, they were not living under our rules today and Abigail’s compassion towards David – that is a key word, I believe – wins the day.

Abigail responds to David’s care and protection of her family with food and provisions for him and his men.   She is not stingy with the provisions; she is generous.  She sends 200 loaves of bread and five sheep fully dressed.  She doesn’t tell her husband, who might have stopped her.   I’m sure he would have perceived her actions as traitorous to him and his alliances.   Nonetheless, she sends young men with the provisions and then follows on her own, until she meets David.

At that point, she dismounts, prostates herself at his feet and asks for forgiveness.  She also aligns herself with David’s cause against her husband – which she determined to be just.  In so doing, she makes complete peace with David.

Mostly unmentioned by the text is her relationship with her husband.  After Abigail told him what she had done, “his heart died within him” with his becoming like a stone.  The text continues and notes:  “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal, and he died.”  While Nabal does not wage war against her, I have trouble seeing her relationship with her husband as loving, peaceful, or even respectful.  Indeed, I believe her marital relationship was severely strained by her behavior and her alliance with David.  I cannot imagine his feeling anything but betrayal by his wife.  So while she indeed made peace with David, she harmed her husband emotionally and socially, if not physically.

This short story raised a bunch of questions for me.  Abigail seemingly followed her passion for peace and justice with respect to David, without regard to tradition, history, or societal norms and expectations for her being a wife.  She betrayed her husband in his loyalty to King Saul, but in so doing, she saved her family and truly waged peace.  One might even argue that this story represents one of the first cases of  reported situational ethics.  Abigail responded in her situation with the goal of causing the least hurt and the best outcome for all.  Most importantly, unlike many of us, she did not spend time talking about it.  She just acted.

If we were to apply this paradigm of waging peace to current conflicts within the Mennonite Church today, we might come up with some interesting, and maybe startling, ideas.

My sense is that many of us here at Seattle Mennonite Church favor an inclusive membership, and some of us embrace what is called radical hospitality.

In that vein, about two months ago, Melanie asked me from my perspective of having pastored two Unitarian Universalist congregations on the East Coast what Mennonites could learn from the UUs in becoming more welcoming to the GLBTQ community.  I thought about her question and concluded that in some ways, this is not a fair comparison,  because Unitarian Universalists have been working at welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people for nearly 45 years, with the first resolution on the topic passed at a general assembly in 1970.  Nonetheless, using the story of Abigail as a paradigm, here are some possibilities that Seattle Mennonite Church could consider implementing today.

One possibility would be to join or help create a welcoming conference of Mennonite churches, one in which differences in gender orientation would be fully accepted and affirmed, for both parishioners and clergy.  I suggest this because currently, the historic Germantown Mennonite Church at which Wilhelm Rittenhouse preached exists independent of any conference, as does Calgary Inter-Mennonite Church in Canada.  Both of these churches were “kicked out” by their respective conferences because of their inclusiveness.  Then too, currently the Mountain States district conference in Colorado appears to be more welcoming and inclusive than is our own Pacific Northwest Conference, in that it recently ordained an out of the closet lesbian, much to the dismay of some officials of the Mennonite Church USA.  I submit that it is actions similar to gay and lesbian ordination and marriages which need to occur throughout the Mennonite church.

I note that Abigail did not engage in conversation with Nabal about David before her meeting with him.  She merely told Nabal what she had done after the fact, when he could do nothing.  We need to encourage such welcoming actions throughout our Mennonite brother and sister congregations.  Enough talk; we need to act.

I also believe that we could and need to challenge the “discipline” offered by conferences to clergy in which their credentials are suspended or revoked because of principled stands taken in support of the LGBT community.  Indeed, our own selection process for our lead clergy here at Seattle Mennonite is somewhat biased – for I believe all of our candidates for ministry will have been approved by the Pacific Northwest Conference.  That allows the conference the possibility of screening out all deeply committed, inclusive pastors.  I personally believe it would be helpful to have certain specific criteria for any clergy person we select – one of which could be “has officiated at same sex weddings,” while perhaps another one could be “is in a committed same sex relationship with a partner.”  Please don’t misunderstand me.  Neither of these variables is sufficient for someone to be a pastor at Seattle Mennonite Church, but they could be one of the necessary components for choosing our lead pastor.  Unless we and other congregations utilize such necessary criteria as these, it will be very easy for the prejudices of our denomination to continue to exist unchallenged and unabated, where competent clergy will be disqualified because of their own sexual orientation or inclusiveness.

In Melanie’s sermon several weeks ago, she mentioned the need for joining in advocacy.  We certainly could become more committed to supporting the LGBTQ community in their issues by placing advertisements in their literature and publications.  We could also make it a point to appear in Seattle’s annual Pride Parade – even though it takes place on a Sunday.  I still like the idea of us appearing in Pink Menno t-shirts for it!  This year, I understand there had been plans to take part in the parade, but those plans ended up being scuttled because of a guest speaker attending that Sunday to speak on safety issues.  I pray that this does not become a pattern of having more important things to attend to than the Gay Pride parade.

Each of these proposals entail reaching out to the LGBTQ community while distancing ourselves from the civil rights abuses contained in the Mennonite Church USA positions.  They represent small steps towards making peace with lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people, and yet, they might be perceived as our taking a big step away from the prejudice within the Mennonite Church and what I believe to be the misreading of scripture which supports those prejudices.

The real question for us today is “Would Abigail do any less when confronted with this prejudice and injustice?”  I think not.

Thank you for listening…..and I look forward to your responses later.