Sunday, October 07, 2007

Our Holy Calling

“THE GUNFIRE AROUND us makes it hard to hear. But the human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when it's not shouting. Even when it's just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard - -over armies... when it's telling the truth.”

This quote from the 2005 movie, The Interpreter, is the inscription to a book written by the fictional African dictator, Edmond Zuwanie, at the rise of his political career as a liberationist fighting for freedom in Africa. Now nearly 25 years later in the aftermath of decades of corruption, genocide and tyranny at the hands of this same man, Silvia Broome, a revolutionary turned UN interpreter from Zuwanie’s fictional country of Matobo, re-reads these words, words she once treasured. The human voice is different…

The movie follows Silvia as she uncovers an assassination plot to murder Zuwanie during his upcoming testimony to the United Nations regarding the indictment against him for crimes against humanity. Despite the fact Zuwanie long ago abandoned his ideals of liberation for power, turning the guns he once carried against the colonial exploiters toward his own people, despite the fact that he is responsible for the deaths of Silvia’s parents, brother and lover, despite the fact that she herself was once part of a rebel army seeking to destroy him, Silvia believes that violence and death are never the solution, not even when turned against the world’s most notorious dictator. And so she reports the plot, trying desperately to stop yet another act of violence in a world already so broken.

In the course of the film, Silvia is interrogated by the agent sent to protect her. Why in the world is she so committed to protecting the person she once sought to kill? It makes no sense to this American consumed with his private thoughts of vengeance and retribution. Why would someone risk their own life to protect that of genocidal tyrant?

This is Silvia’s reply: “I walked away from Africa with nothing. No brother, no family, no lover, nothing. Just a belief that words and compassion are the better way. Even if it's slower than a gun.”

Silvia put down her gun years ago to work at the United Nations where she believed truth, reconciliation and peace were possible. Words and compassion are the better way, even if they are slower than a gun. As the movie progresses Silvia must choose between her way of words and compassion and the world’s way of violence, retribution and death, struggling to hold fast to her belief that one human voice can make a difference in a world of suffering.

I think it is hard for many of us to hold fast to that belief. Isn’t it? While the movie revolves around a fictional country and dictator, it is not hard to see the transparent parallels between the strife ridden Matobo and the current crisis in Zimbabwe. The name, Matobo comes from the Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe and the symbol on a fictional anti-Zuwanie demonstrator’s poster is the same open-handed symbol of the main opposition party in Zimbabwe, The Movement for Democratic Change. Moreover, the similarities between the fictional Zuwanie and the Zimbawean Robert Mugabe, are unmistakable. Like Zuwanie, Mugabe was once a respected freedom fighter, a teacher turned revolutionary turned brutal dictator. Both face charges of crimes against humanity by international leaders and both have engineered their own assassination plots to maintain power and control. In fact, the similarities between fictional Matobo and Zimbabwe were so overt, that the President’s Office in Zimbabwe banned the film from showing in Zimbabwe.

We don’t have to stretch our imaginations very far to envision a country like Matobo, where people are terrorized by their own government, oppressed under the threat of death, disappeared into mass graves. We see the oppressive hand of violence everyday in our headlines…not just in Zimbabwe, but now in so many other places around the world. Ethnic cleansing in Darfur, persecution of monks in Myanmar, continued conflict in Israel and Palestine, daily bombings in Iraq.

Confronted with the reality of what is happening around the world and in our own country we can find ourselves overwhelmed by the immensity of suffering, paralyzed by a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness in the midst of so much pain. What can we possibly do about global conflicts for power and control? Who are we to change the world?

We are certainly not the first generation to experience such disillusionment. The letter from which we read this evening is addressed to a later Pauline community in the midst of a failing faith. It seems people in this community have been falling away from their faith in the face of mounting ridicule, marginalization and persecution. Scholars mostly agree that this letter was written in the name of Paul after his death. While it is unclear the extent to which the claims made in the letter are historically accurate, the author suggests that the whole of Asia has been lost as people have abandoned the gospel in disbelief of its good news in the face of so much struggle. They have become ashamed of a gospel that proclaims triumph in the face of defeat, life in the face of death, hope in the face of despair. How can these claims possibly be true when all else in the world testifies to the contrary?

The author urges the readers to a renewed faith beyond the present trials, encouraging them to let go of fear and embrace the spirit of power and love with which they were created.

“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our God or of me a prisoner of the Divine, but join with me in struggling for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling… I am not ashamed, for I know the One in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure God is able to guard until that day.”
These words express a fundamental hope in God. God will save them despite all evidence to the contrary. Surely the people then, and we now, must ask how this could be said when Paul most likely died a terrible death in Rome? It doesn’t make sense.

How do we continue in a faith tradition that proclaims peace is more powerful than violence in a world of war? How do we confess a belief that justice will triumph will it seems oppression and injustice win the day? How do we hold fast to a faith that proclaims love is stronger than hate, reconciliation far better than vengeance, forgiveness superior to resentment in the midst of a world bent on prejudice and retribution? How do we confess a faith that proclaims life is stronger than death in the midst of a suffering and broken world? How do we hold to the faith that words and compassion are the better way, even if it slower than a gun?

The author of this letter to the community of Timothy would answer that even in and through such struggles there is a keeping which gives a deep sense of peace and enables us to go on, for the Holy Spirit has gifted us with a holy calling through the grace of God.

“Rely on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
We have been given a holy calling contrary to the ways of the world, a vocation of peace and justice, love and compassion, through the gift of God’s grace breathed into us at our birth and nurtured through our lives as we seek God’s kin-dom vision in this broken world.

The disciples, like this early Pauline community, were equally skeptical about their ability to do the gospel calling. This week in Luke we read their response to Jesus’ instructions to forgive sinners and love their enemies. In the face of seemingly impossible tasks, the disciples beg Jesus for an extra measure of faith, a stronger will, a more complete resolve to equip them for the daunting tasks set before them.

“Increase our faith!” they cry. Surely we cannot do all of this on our own, at least not as we are. Increase our faith! For God knows, we need help!

Increase our faith, sweet Jesus!

In response to such a plea, Jesus’ answer might seem callous and unsympathetic at first. There is no miraculous pouring out of the holy spirit, no dove descending, no thunderous voice of the divine, no magic hocus pocus to give the disciples the super-human strength they need to accomplish God’s vision of forgiveness, non-violence and love. Jesus denies their request.

Instead, it seems Jesus scolds them saying,

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Ouch. Yet, far from a stinging slap in the face, Jesus’ reply is a simple assertion of the truth. The disciples already have all that they need to do what God has called them to do. Just like Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz, who discovers she has had the power she needed all along, so also Jesus tries to tell the disciples what they need is not superhuman strength or will or resolve, but simple faith in their ability to create change one person at a time. Each time they choose peace over violence, love over hate, forgiveness over resentment, life over death, they make real God’s kin-dom one choice at a time. Little by little God’s love is made real in the world through individual acts of justice, kindness and mercy.

We no longer think only of an old woman’s charity, a prisoner’s hope, a farmer’s conviction, or a government worker’s dream. No, now we remember Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as global heroes whose actions made real God’s vision of peace and justice in the world.

While systemic change is necessary, it always begins with small acts of courage and kindness in a hope that the individual choices we make in our lives ultimately make a difference. When we choose non-violence, compassion and love, we contribute to God’s vision of peace and justice by incarnating it in the world around us, just like Jesus did.

We already have the power and strength we need to begin to create change in the world. Just as Margaret Mead has said,

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
It is through our humanity, having been created in the image of the divine, that we find our innate grace, a spirit of power and love that enables us to make real God’s kin-dom in the world. We have been given a holy calling, one that we fulfill one choice, one action, one day at a time.

“But the human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when it's not shouting. Even when it's just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard - -over armies... when it's telling the truth.”


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