082221 Pentecost 13 A Theology and Spirituality of Transformation

The sermon begins at minute 21:40 of the video

        Today I couldn’t prepare a normal sermon based on the lectionary texts. My reflections have taken me to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. These days have been full of shock, grief, anger, worry, panic, death, and inspiration. The images coming out of Afghanistan are devastating. So, we’ve focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan and COVID, while Haiti suffers another blow to its fragile existence, and racism keeps raising its ugly head. This is a time to mourn many losses – blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. We must let the sorrow in; feel the solidarity with the Afghan people, especially women, artists, children, and minorities targeted by the Taliban; feel the grief of losing loved ones again from COVID; face the anguish of another devastating earthquake in Haiti; feel the pain of our racist past and present; find grace for smaller crises facing our friends, family, and selves. We dare not move on from this grief too quickly.

But neither can we stop asking why this is happening and what now. We hear analysis coming from every corner if we’re paying attention. We are being given grace to both grieve and reflect. It could be a moment of transformation for the world if we face it with courage and humility. So, we ask questions. Why did the Afghan army, trained at such great expense by the US, surrender so quickly to the Taliban? Why do blacks still not trust whites in America? Why have we never been able to heal the wound in Native Americans? How can we best help Haiti after so much devastation? Why do people keep judging and gossiping about friends and fellow church members when they do something that offends them?

As news of the unanticipated speed of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and the surrender of Afghan troops without a fight flowed in during recent weeks, my mind went back to things I learned in my first year living in Mexico 35 years ago. Those lessons came back to me with such force this week that I must share them, both to remind myself and to invite others to view the world through the eyes of transformation.

That year I attended two courses that prepared me to work in marginal communities in Mexico. The first was about participative methods for educating adults. The second was about a theology of transformation. The teachers of participative methods had learned their craft in India, and were teaching the course in rural villages and urban centers around the world. The central message was that people are experts in their own reality. Anthropologists have concluded that cultures should be regarded as more or less equal to each other in their ability to meet the needs of their members. A given culture shapes a way of life that must be seen as valid for those immersed in it. Marginal people who may not know how to read or write still know more about how to live in their reality than outside experts, though they can learn a lot from those experts if the learning is mutual and respectful. We were taught how to engage communities in analyzing their own villages through pictures and stories. Each of us is also an expert in our own life – a good reminder whenever we are tempted to criticize or envy others.

The course on a theology of transformation taught that every person, and every culture, have gifts from God that benefit other persons and cultures if they are open to receive them. Applying the theology to the work of change agents in local communities reveals the need to distinguish between development and transformation. Development is unidirectional – external agents “helping” the community to improve their lives, according to the criteria of the helpers. Transformation, on the other hand, is mutual. Outsiders and insiders work together to create the future that the community seeks for itself. Outsiders receive unexpected knowledge about life from insiders, and insiders receive helpful knowledge about the bigger world from outsiders. Both receive and give the gifts that God has given to each.

I got to apply those lessons to work in community transformation in Mexico. When my family first moved into the community, I thought the greatest needs were paved streets and running water. I was surprised that the community’s priorities were an afterschool homework program and nutrition classes. Later, when I began a Bible study with women who barely knew how to read, I was taught things that I’d never learned in seminary. It transformed my way of seeing the world.

Can you imagine how different things would be if the United States had entered Afghanistan with those perspectives? If we’d understood that Afghans knew some things about the world that could benefit us if we learned them? Instead President Bush said, the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies… this grand country of ours has an obligation to help people realize the blessings of freedom …Democracy hasn’t exactly been rooted deeply in Afghan history. It takes help for people to understand the obligations to respond to the people.

       Those are noble thoughts, but they reveal a lack of understanding of mutual transformation. We see the

consequences of that today. We didn’t believe we had anything to learn or receive – only to teach and give. There were things the Afghans valued that went against American values. They were willing to take the goodies, but we didn’t change their values because we didn’t learn what they valued. We could have learned things we did not know that could have helped us. I don’t want to oversimplify. It’s not all a lack of understanding. But as the US consider future interventions, and as we think of our own lives, we must understand mutual transformation.

A theology of transformation believes that God is transforming this world and us, not just preparing us for heaven. The Bible promises a new heaven and a new earth, prays for God’s kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven, and calls us a new creation now, not only after we die. As obvious as this in the Scriptures, it’s not what most Christians believe. For those who think religion is about getting into heaven, Christianity’s mission is to persuade others to believe in Christ, and to help them have some of the material benefits that we have. It was true in the 16th century when Spain and Portugal came to “evangelize” the Indians and claim the land for the crown. It was true for American missionaries who went to save heathens and expand American-style democracy and culture. It is true for those who still want to restore white supremacy and American exceptionalism. And it’s true for us whenever criticizing other people and hearing gossip about them makes us feel better about ourselves.

When we look at the world with eyes of transformation, we see it as a source of gifts and a realm where gifts can be shared. We don’t see our friends threatening our wellbeing or needing our resources. Instead, we enter into mutually transforming relationships, and admit there is much we don’t know about each other, and much to learn and receive from each other. We won’t gossip about others because we feel threatened by or jealous of what they have. We won’t resist teaching our children the truth of our nation’s violent founding or racist history because we’re afraid they will lose their patriotism. We won’t send our military to other countries as saviors who must unilaterally rescue people from their enemies without being open to the complexity of the situation within their culture. And we won’t just feel sorry for a nation like Haiti. We will see both their resources and their needs, and respond in a way that takes both into account.

We’ve explored a theology of transformation. We must develop a spirituality of transformation to be people who behave in transformational ways. It takes practice, resistance, and courage to be the sole voice that speaks up, like Congresswoman Barbara Lee did twenty years ago. If we start with mutual transformation in our personal relationships, we will sow seeds that will begin to impact larger contexts.