For Methodist Heritage Week each year, the students set up a big tent on the quad to share some good ol' Methodist hospitality with the campus. So, Wesley style, this is an open air sermon, complete with a lovely cricket soundtrack. You also get to hear a live-action version of our commitment to "Welcome All."
You can listen to the audio (crickets and all) here:
Text, sans crickets, is below.
This past summer I had a wonderful opportunity to live and work in Hawaii. It’s a beautiful place, as you might imagine, though filled with some interesting contradictions. It turns out that there is a lot of pain even in paradise. Case in point: one of the places I visited during my time there was the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. The memorial sits on the surface of the water directly above the sunken hulk of one of the massive battleships destroyed when the Japanese Air Force struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It’s a haunting memorial – you can just see the underwater outline of the massive naval vessel, with oil still leaking out of it more than 70 years later.
The memorial contains a hall with the names of all 1,177 crewmembers who died that day in 1941. And in that hall, there is an open-space sculpture called the Tree of Life. According to Daniel Martinez, the chief historian of the site, the Tree of Life “is a universal symbol. It’s a renewal, it’s a rebirth. You can find it in all cultures, [and the architect] wanted to make sure he could adapt something to the memorial that had no ownership, so that people could come to the memorial and hopefully, by seeing the symbol and understanding that symbol, they could remember a time of war in a time of peace.”[i]
The Tree of Life is, indeed, a widely venerated symbol. For Christians, both the first book and the last book of the Bible contain the image of the Tree of Life. It’s prominent in as varied worldviews as Norse mythology and Darwinian evolutionary theory. Apparently the Rastafarians refer to their unique sacrament as the leaves of the Tree of Life.
I’m talking about pot there, just in case you missed it.
The point being, there is a universalism to the symbolism of the memorial sculpture. To have the Tree of Life as the framing motif of the names of all of those deceased sailors was a powerful decision by the architect. And as you might imagine, it was somewhat controversial. When it was built in the 60s, it was criticized as “beatnik art.”[ii] Perhaps people felt like it was too soon to send a message of peace and restoration in a place memorializing destruction and war. Perhaps they wanted something more nationalistic.
See, there are a lot of ways to remember tragedy. That’s an easy concept to see here in Washington, DC. The World War II memorial focuses on the glorious war effort of Greatest Generation. The Vietnam Memorial is a stark reminder of the losses of that war, and individuals come to read the names and to leave small mementos to their friends, creating a second living memorial on the foundation of the first. The two memorials create a marked contrast, perhaps inadvertently symbolizing the spectrum of this country’s feelings about war.
How do we remember?
It’s an appropriate question for today, when many of us in this country are tuned in to the communal memory of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. I realized, as I was preparing for this sermon, that many of you were pretty young when the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon here in DC, and a field in Pennsylvania. Yet like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “day that will live in infamy,” September 11 has become a marker date for the U.S., a day on which people remember where they were when they heard the news.
I remember that day very clearly, or at least certain details of that day. I grew up in suburban Maryland, and the Pentagon felt awfully, awfully close. The clear, blue sky was empty of planes for the first time I could ever remember. School was let out, and I hunkered down at a friend’s house and watched the news until we couldn’t take it anymore.
September 11 is a marker date for me personally. I would go on to tackle a bachelor’s degree in international studies in large part to make sense of the events of that day. I started to learn more and more about the long history of Western entanglement in the Middle East and central Asia. That long, violent history continues today, as we have been reminded recently by events in Iraq and Syria. That long, violent history eventually led me to live in the Middle East as part of the global ministries of the United Methodist Church. So yes. I remember September 11, 2001.
Of course, I just happen to be a U.S. American. In Chile, September 11 marks the day in 1973 when a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government, leading to a military dictatorship and the deaths of thousands of Chileans. And other people in other nations have their own marker dates. In fact, much of the difficulty in establishing a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis comes from very different interpretations of the events of May 15, 1948.
So while I’m sensitive to the particular importance for this date in the U.S.American memory, what I am talking about tonight is not solely the importance of one date, but about the importance of memory. How do we remember? In particular, how do we remember tragedy and trauma?
As I’ve said, there are a lot of different ways to memorialize communal events. But tonight I want to touch on a certain quality of the way that followers of Jesus remember. Simply but paradoxically put, I think that Christians are called to remember forward rather than backwards.
To get at what I mean by that rather odd statement, I’d like us to consider the scripture that we heard tonight. We heard verses from the last two chapters of the book of Revelation. This is the achingly beautiful, utopian vision of “the new heaven and the new earth” that God will establish, a world in which “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” and God will wipe every tear from every eye. In the words of one song, “not in some heaven light years away,” but rather here, on earth, will be a new community, a city in which there is no hunger or thirst.[iii] And there, in the center of the city, is that universal symbol, the “tree of life.” Scripture tells us that “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
It’s a beautiful passage, full of hope.
But it comes at the end of a book best known for bizarre and terrifying visions and horror movie levels of violence. It’s written in the context of the violence and persecution of the Roman Empire. It’s graphic, and raw, and often gory.
The Book of Revelation is a literature of trauma. Scholars debate whether the community out of which this particular witness comes was undergoing some sort of violent persecution or were just expecting it to happen soon, but either way their communal experience was one of tragedy and trauma. This is not writing that emerges out of a place of safety, or comfort, or privilege. This is the poetry of pain.
And yet, incredibly, the view by which the community of Revelation understands its trauma has a horizon of hope. The experience of tragedy and of violence is not understood as the end of the story. Because the true reality of the world is something beyond the tragic events of the *right now.*
Christian memory, oddly enough, begins with remembering the future. This is not to say that we don’t memorialize those events that have wounded us, either in our communal life or in our personal lives. Nor is it to say that we must jump immediately to some superficial forgiveness, nor that we are never allowed to be angry or hurt. No. The writer of Revelation makes plenty of space for the community to express its pain, even its rage and its desire for revenge.
But that is not the end of the community’s story. Not for those with a hope in Christ. Because the light of the new heaven and the new earth, the light of Christ, shines back through all of our experiences and all of our memories, illuminating the dark places, creating the conditions for renewal, rebirth, and interconnection. Our faith affects our memory, leading us always *away* from hatred and violence, and *toward* a new life of restoration and rebirth and interconnection.
Is it possible to remember forward? Can we—even as we look back, even as we share our own stories of hurt or of tragedy—see our lives in the light of the new creation made possible by God – the God who wants to heal *all* nations?
It’s an important question, not only because this is a day of remembering, but also because memory is so central for people of faith.
In a little bit, we’ll share in communion together. And we’ll listen to Jesus’ words, on the night before his death, when he tells us to share food and drink together in remembrance of him. The Greek word for remembrance doesn’t just mean to think about the past. It means to participate in the past, to re-enact it. To make it part of our present lives.
My fiancée, Leigh, asked me a little while ago what I thought communion must have been like the first time the disciples shared it after the crucifixion. How the memory of that awful night must have felt so close. How they were remembering, not hypothetically, but really re-enacting a time of trauma and pain. Leigh told me that she imagines communion must have been a bit like a wake, those closest to Jesus gathered to raise their glasses in a toast to their friend. That there were stories, and songs, and also quite a bit of weeping.
And in that same communion liturgy, the one about remembering a traumatic night, we’ll remember forward, to a time when “Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” We’re re-enacting the past, but we’re also enacting the future. And as we do so, we participate in a central act of our faith, one that forms us for a life of service and of love. We are participating in a story that vastly precedes us, made possible by a hopeful future that is breaking in to the present.
So whatever it is that occupies your memory tonight, whether it’s the events of 13 years ago or the events of your past week, I invite you to also remember forward. To remember that our lives as people of faith are directed toward a horizon of hope. Toward a new heaven and a new hope. Toward a new, universal tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of all people.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] William Cole, “Redesign offers room for contemplation,” Honolulu Star Advertiser, 5 Dec 2010, available online: http://www.staradvertiser.com/specialprojects/10/pearlharbor/20101205_redesign_offers_room_for_contemplation.html?id=111250494)
[iii] Marty Haugen, “Gather Us In,” 1982, in The Faith We Sing 2236