Title: In the world
Texts: Ps 118:1-2, 19-29; Phil 2:5-11
Date: March 28, 2010
Author: Isaac Villegas
What does it mean to be Christians in the world? How are we supposed to live as witnesses to God’s love? Those are basic questions for us. But as a way to answer them, I thought I’d stir things up around here and talk about something from the news this past week: the national anthem at Goshen College.
Goshen College is a Mennonite university in Indiana. When the school started playing intercollegiate athletics in 1957, the administration decided not to play the national anthem before sporting events, even though all the other colleges did. It had something to do with the militarism of the song, and with the internationalism of being a Mennonite.
That tradition changed this past Tuesday when the administration decided to play an instrumental version of the anthem before a home baseball game: The Goshen Maple Leafs vs. the Siena Heights Saints—Goshen lost, by the way.
There are a number of people in our church who graduated from Goshen, so I think it’s safe to assume that this is something they’ve thought about. And for the rest of us who don’t think we are entitle to an opinion in the matter since we didn’t go there, I should let you know that we are a part-owner of Goshen College. Goshen is owned by Mennonite Church USA, which means you. So, all of us are somewhat involved—even if we don’t think it’s an important issue.
The president of Goshen College, Jim Brenneman, said: “Playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another.” It was about being hospitable for the sake of conversation. That’s what he said a couple months ago when he announced the decision to play the anthem.
Recently lots of Mennonites (and non-Mennonites) have signed petitions and have written letters in opposition to the decision. In response, Brenneman had this to say—and this is where he gets at my question of what it means to be in the world as people of God’s love: he said, “The crux of the matter has to do with our relationship with God and with our country… How do we celebrate the freedoms and opportunities of this country and still challenge injustices that also exist in our midst?” Brenneman emphasizes the issue of God and country, of celebrating freedom and challenging injustice—of living in the world as the people of God’s love and justice and peace, and gratitude for what citizens can enjoy.
The New York Times covered the story in Wednesday’s paper. The article quotes one ecstatic spectator who celebrated the national anthem at the Goshen baseball game by painting U.S.A. on his chest and, as the reporter comments, “whooped it up at the end of the song.” This patriotic spectator said, “I respect some of the beliefs people have here, but I think the freedom of the flag is what allows us to be here… People fought to give us the freedoms we have, and that should be respected.”
So, back to my questions: What does it mean to be Christians in the world? How are we supposed to live as witnesses to God’s love? Does being in the world mean it’s a good idea to play the national anthem as an act of hospitality to patriotic citizens? Is a national anthem a good way to celebrate being in the world and to challenge all the ways the world refuses to love like God loves?
In the world… We are Christians in the world. There’s really no alternative. There’s no such thing as retreat from the world, because the world is everywhere. It’s in you house—the people and machines that made your clothes, your furniture, and even your house. And the world is in your body—the people who harvested the food you eat and who work at the grocery store or at the farmer’s market. Your life is sustained by the labor of the world, of many different corners of the world.
The world is everywhere; it permeates us. It’s even hard to talk about the world as if it’s something that excludes our lives. We are always located in a particular corner of the world, and end up shaping that part of the world through our relationships with our neighbors, where we shop and what we eat, and where we walk and with whom we talk.
There’s no such thing as withdrawing from the world; we can only move from one corner of it to another. So, since we are in the world in a multitude of ways, we have to figure out better ways to be witnesses of God’s love wherever we are sent. There is no outside to the world that we can escape to; instead, we share God’s love, God’s peace, God’s justice, in whichever corner of the world we find ourselves, wherever God plants us, we bear fruit.
And wherever we are in the world, we let Jesus be our guide in figuring out how to welcome God’s love in those places. In Philippians, Paul tells us what this love looks like when it happens in our world: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Jesus has a certain way of being in the world. He comes as a slave, not as king. He gives up the powerful position of God and becomes as lowly Jewish peasant from a poor family and from a dump of a town. Jesus’ way into the world starts on the underside of power, at the bottom end of civilization, in a forgotten town with a forgotten people. At some point he gathers a modest following of unimportant people and leads them to Jerusalem where he is killed and his followers have to go underground.
Jesus dies a shameful death on a cross, where he hung between two criminals, who are also rejected members of society—all of them are convicted of being traitors by the people who are trying to maintain a decent society. Crosses are for people who somehow betray the way things are supposed to be. Crosses are for people who threaten to unravel the social fabric. Crosses are for people who need to be killed and publicly humiliated, so that others won’t follow their example. Crosses are public demonstrations that enforce loyalty to the direction of society set by the leaders of the world.
Jesus, God’s love made flesh, comes into the world, but chooses the underside of it—a slum called Nazareth. And when he dies, he is shamed and humiliated by the powers of the world—they make an example out of him to maintain a stable society. Crosses are for criminals, and that’s the kind of company Jesus keeps: those who are in the world, but who are illegitimate members, ungrateful citizens, the social waste of the world. Jesus lives and dies among the nobodies, the forgotten, the rejected—those who are in the world, but not really of the world, because they are not card-carrying members of society; in the world, but despised and alienated and shamed and rejected.
But “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Ps 118:22). That’s a line from our Psalm for today. Jesus is the stone that the builders reject. Jesus is in the world, but he is in the world as the rejected, as the despised one, as the alienated. Followers of Jesus are in the world as he was in the world—being rejected by the world because we stand with all the people that our corner of the world alienates or forgest. We are for the world, but we work for a world of people who have been forgotten.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The rejected Jesus is the chief cornerstone of a new society that welcomes those on the underside, those that the world considers ungrateful traitors, like Jesus. This new society shows hospitality to the social waste of the world, the alienated and rejected: those who are in the world, but not really of the world because they aren’t card-carrying members of society, they are unnecessary to the world’s progress.
Jesus has invited us to build a new society—the kingdom of God—that welcomes the unwelcomed, that takes the people rejected by the builders of this world and includes them as chief cornerstones in a new community, the community of Jesus, the community of the rejected One, the community of the cross.
So, to get back to Goshen… Let me leave you with two questions for our time of discussion and discernment. How would playing the national anthem help us to welcome the people rejected by our world? How would it help any Christian community be a people who witness to the cross of Christ, which is what it means to welcome God’s love in the world?
 Brenneman quoted in “Goshen to begin playing national anthem before athletic events,” by Jodi H. Beyeler, Mennonite Weekly Review, February 1, 2010.
 Taylor TenHarmsel quoted in “College Breaks a Tradition of Silence Before Games,” by Susan Saulny, The New York Times, March 24, 2010.