Tuesday, 24 February 2009 16:38

February 22, 2009 Sermon

“Imagine a World Transformed by God’s Justice”
Mark 9:2-9
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 22, 2009
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

I am back from the Global Baptist Peace Conference.  I am awash in images of Baptist Christians from 59 countries committed to looking at the world from the perspective of God’s plan for justice for all.  I did not get a chance to meet all of them.  I attended workshops to learn about certain situations in other countries.  I stole moments with people over sumptuous meals.  But I only got snapshots of their work and ministries.  But even with the limited time and language, we recognized a similar longing in each other.  We looked for the hope which comes when we are captivated by the Gospel story of liberation.  But more than that, we are sustained by the power of the Gospel to continue changing our lives.  We seek to be a people transformed so that we can imagine a world transformed by God’s justice.
It’s helpful to get out of your familiar surroundings to imagine a world transformed.  
The City of Rome was transformed many times over.  We saw its remnants as we traversed the city.  There were the piles of stones that represented the Greco Roman era.  This was the place of power and wealth, the seat of the Roman Empire.  There were countless temples to its largess.  It seemed each emperor needed to make his own temple to show off his grandeur.  The Roman Empire was defeated and its city sacked and burned.  The Christians came in over the years and built their churches on top of the ruins of ancient Rome.  But then the church was not always the same.  We saw layers of churches built on top of earlier versions, reflecting differing focus and differing theologies.  
At San Clemente church, we saw the beautiful church built in the twelfth century.  The church has beautiful marble columns and crucifixes and renaissance paintings.  But below it is an earlier version dating to the fourth century.  This one had no crucifixes but many faded paintings of Jesus’ life.  Its walls contained fragments of columns and statues—junk, really—used to make its walls—a kind of ancient recycling program.  Below that was a temple to Mithra, a pagan god three stories below at what was once street level 2000 years ago.  
Think how the world and the church has been transformed.  Think of the things that are important now and what they were even a hundred years ago.  Our ancient church buildings are a product of our time and they reflect our heritage.  They were built to stand the test of time, and yet they change.  I heard people say that if we ever left this building behind, we would not recreate it in the same way.  Not only is it cavernous and a bear to heat, it also represents things that are important to us.  While it is cruciform in its design, it remains relatively egalitarian in comparison to other churches.  We intentionally don’t have representational art in our stained glass windows.  We like being able to move our pews so that we can keep things fresh.
There is a temptation to do things the same old way once you are in a building.  Maybe that’s why Jesus rebuked Peter when he suggested making devotional booths for Jesus, Elijah and Moses.  
Today’s scripture represents a transition in the gospel of Mark.  Not only is this the last Sunday before the season of Lent, but it also represents a movement in Mark’s Gospel away from the countryside and toward Jerusalem—that place of power and conflict and ultimate crucifixion.  

In the previous chapter of the gospel, Jesus points his eyes toward Jerusalem and tells the disciples that he is going to suffer and die, and then rise again.  The disciples, in this next half of the gospel of Mark move farther and farther away from Jesus and his message.  As soon as the stakes get higher the disciples turn tail and try to figuratively run away.  It is like they had vision in the first half of the gospel and are now approaching impotence.  They were healers and leaders, now they are apologists, questioners and faithless.  They will soon become sleepers, deniers and betrayers.
Impotence is a strong word.  But it is an important one.  It has to do with not being able to see or hear what God is doing.  When you are like that, then you will actually stand in the way of God’s message and God’s project of bringing justice and love to a world in need.  You don’t produce anything.  And that plays right into the hands of the powers that be.
There is vision at the beginning.  We get involved in a church or a movement because we have glimpsed a new way of looking at the world which restores out souls, which points us in the right direction.  But if we are not careful, it wears off and we become our cynical selves, wrapped up in all of the reasons there is not to hope.  
There is a scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy has just spent two weeks in the hole (solitary confinement) for infecting the prison yard with music, Mozart to be exact.  The prison yard sat stunned.  When he returned from the hole, he spoke with his buddies at the mess hall.  He said the two weeks were the easiest he had ever spent because he had Mr. Mozart to accompany him.  Right here, in his heart.  The other hardened prisoners looked at him bewildered.  They said, “What are you talking about?”  “Hope”, says Andy.  Red, another prisoner shot back, “Look, hope is a dangerous thing in here.  It drives people crazy.”  Andy looked around the table and saw that he was the only one with hope.  He was the only one with vision.  The others were impotent, having succumbed to the ways of their world—captives in more ways than one.
It’s hard to keep the vision alive, especially when that vision is unpopular.  Jesus likened the disciples back in Chapter 4 to seeds that were sewn on rocky ground.  “When they hear the word they receive it with joy.  But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then when trouble or persecution arises on the account of the word, immediately they fall away.”(4:16,17)

At the Global Baptist Peace Conference, I attended a workshop by Septemmy Lakawa.  She's a feminist theologian from Jakarta, Indonesia. While she and her immediate family are Christian, her grandmother's family was Muslim.  She straddles the cultural and familial lines that distinguish one religion from another.   It's no surprise that much of her work focuses on dialogue and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians.  

Some of her fieldwork occurs in villages where there has been incredible violence against people because of their religion. She documents the stories of Christian women widowed and traumatized by attacks from their Muslim neighbors.  Many of whom, like Professor Lakawa, share extended familial ties with the attackers.  Her interview subjects told about the challenge of putting their lives back together.  They spoke of seeing their attackers in the marketplace.  They told of their awkward relationships with the families of the attackers.  She asked how they survived in such a place, in such a setting.  It’s not easy.  They can never forget what had happened to them.  Never, ever.  The trauma is always raw and always there, each time they look into the fatherless eyes of their children.  The only thing they can do is turn to the wall and die or imagine a new reality.  Survival means choosing how you remember.

We all carry memories with us.  Some of them are debilitating and they are with us always, dogging us and keeping us immobile.  These are the memories of trauma.  They are closely associated with rage at those who have done us wrong.  Some of us focus on these memories.  And it’s important to tap into that anger and deal with that righteous rage.  But can we live with that rage on the tip of our tongues all the time?  This kind of memory often chokes out other memories.  Like a brier patch nothing else can get in and we wallow in this rage and we relive the trauma day in and day out.  Professor Lakawa saw people living in their bombed out homes and churches still reeling and still reliving the pain and horror.  Focusing only on these memories lead to death.

Professor Lakawa says people going through trauma need to recover and embrace subversive memories.  These are those places of joy and hope that seek to balance out the trauma.  Like crocuses inching up after months of snow, they can show a different path toward recovery.  The subversive memories are the ones that is evidenced in kindness.  

When Professor Lakawa and her students took down the stories of the people in this border town, they gave them the opportunity to tell stories of hope.  Some of them had not spoken of hope in a long time.  They had buried those thoughts.  They spoke about the friendships they once had with their Muslim sisters and brothers.  They spoke about how they must be hurting too. They spoke about how they were able to provide for their children.  They spoke about their hopes and dreams for their future.  They realized that they were not alone in their community and they even realized that their survival was dependant upon pulling together as a community.  All of these were subversive memories.  The warring factions believed that they could create so much trauma that the fallout would kill any hope.  That’s what debilitating memories do.  But these women pulled together and started to recognize and embrace subversive memories.  And before long, their memories were not only debilitating.  They started realizing the power of subversiveness—which is a central point of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Finally, she says that survivors need transforming memories.  These memories are the ones, which take back the power of the former victim.  She told of how the widows practiced tentative forgiveness toward their abusers and their families.  This was not simple charity.  It was a survival mechanism.  Refusing forgiveness means that the violent one has continual power over you.  Choosing forgiveness means you take your power back.  It doesn't mean forget.  It means that the memory is no longer going to be debilitating.  

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not just simple advice.  It is survival.  When Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he’s giving us a counter-cultural imperative to save our lives from debilitating despair and the desperate violence of revenge.  When the Gospel tells us “blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”, that same Gospel is tipping its hand against those easy answers that pervades religion.  

True religion takes hard work of transforming and transfiguring our lives.  The result and the benefit is that we see the larger picture from God’s point of view, a view where peace and justice embrace and we are no longer willing to be victims or make others into victims of our own self-centeredness.  The Gospel tells us to forgive 7 times 70 times.  Not forget, but forgive.  Meaning that our memories are transformed and we are no longer defined by another’s actions, but by our own spiritual transformation.  That’s when we tap into real life-giving power.

To cap off her presentation, Professor Lakawa did a dance to haunting music of simultaneous church bells and Muslim calls to prayer (with a little bit of drum on the side).  She danced Indonesian style with flexible and expressive fingers and wrists.  She danced trauma and she danced transformation.  She sought to embody what she saw and what she experienced—the sorrow, the memories, the connection with others and with God and a movement toward transformation.   Her dance displayed her own inner dialogue with her Muslim and Christian heritage.  And it pointed to a more hopeful future, beyond us and them.  It was a re-imagined dance of peace.

Peter, James and John see Jesus, Moses and Elijah transfigured up on a mountain.  Peter tries to make booths for each of them as if preserving the moment would help.  A voice comes to from the cloud saying “This is my beloved son”—the same words that came at his baptism.  But added are the following words, “listen to him.”  It is the listening that the disciples cannot and will not do, try as they might.  

But we can listen.  Think of the inner dialogue you have with your own memories.  Think of the memories that debilitate you.  A missed shot.  A trauma.  A failure.  An anger.  An injustice.  Do these memories debilitate you.  Are they your only focus?

Or is there also a subversive memory in the mix.  The memory of all of your training.  A memory of your successes.  A memory of the support you have in your community.   A memory of laughter to break up the immobility that often accompanies our tears.  A memory of joy.  A memory of love.  We need subversive memories.

Finally, we need transformative memories.  Memories where we take our power.  Not necessarily that we get an outcome we desire, but that the rules change and we seek to transform our lives.  
Transforming memories embrace peacemaking and justice-seeking.  
Transforming memories connect us with God’s desires for our lives.  
Transforming memories grant hope and connect us with a power greater than ourselves that can restore us to sanity.
Peter James and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain.  It was not about how great Jesus was.  It was not about making booths for Moses and Elijah.  It was not about who is the best.  It was about how we are to transfigure our lives.  What about us is going to change?  As we figuratively descend from the mountain with James, John and Peter, how will our lives be transformed?  

How will we be transfigured?

Which memories get the prime spot in our psyches?  

How long do we stay there?  

This is not just an academic question.  It’s a question of survival.  It’s a question of thriving. It’s a question of melding our lives with a movement that transforms our lives and by extension, transforms our world.  

May we move from only focusing on debilitating memory.
May we remember and recover subversive memory.
And may we live lives transformed and transfigured as we embrace God’s memory for us.