Worship | July 18 | Moving toward transformation


The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859.

Moving Toward Transformation

There is a practice that I’ve experienced as part of Mennonite circles that I am not sure whether it is unique to us or not but which I find to be an interesting one.  That practice is sometimes called a “listening committee,” and it functions during bigger gatherings or meetings by appointing a few representatives who listen diligently and take note of what they hear.  Then at the end of the gathering, this listening committee gives its report with each person offering a recap of the things they heard during seminars, worship services, or even personal conversations that they found to be meaningful or important.  Different than official minutes for the meeting, these reports attempt to capture something deeper. Sometimes there is an attempt to synthesize these snippets into underlying themes, but often the report is simply a series of snippets in a sort of poetic list that offers brief glimpses into the experience that the whole group has just shared. 

Usually these reports contain their fair share of funny quotations that help remind people of the laughs that had been shared during the past few days.  And often there is an equal number of moments during these reports where a short quote or phrase from a sermon or an especially powerful seminar is shared, causing a more pensive moment to wash over the gathering as we remember and reflect on how that speaker challenged us to think deeply about where God is calling us next. 

My task for this morning is to give a sort of “listening committee” report to you about the Mennonite Church USA Convention that happened in Cincinnati a week-and-a-half ago.  This is a convention that happens every two years and is meant to bring together people from Mennonite congregations across the denomination for building relationships, exploring Mennonite spiritual formation, and shaping a direction for our life together as a denomination. 

During any normal year, it would be hard enough to try to summarize and report on the breadth of experiences that happen at one of these conventions, so being a virtual participant adds another layer of difficulty on top of that.  The convention planners worked hard to create an experience for those of us participating virtually, but I would encourage you to remember that any report I give is pretty limited in its ability to capture the essence of the overall convention. 

Despite these limitations, I was able to participate alongside the in-person attendees during the worship and bible study sessions.  These large group plenary sessions were one of the only spaces where everyone, both in-person and virtual, were experiencing the same content at the same time, and so I imagine that these spaces really set the tone for the convention as a whole. 

As I mentioned in my blog last week, the convention theme for this year was “Bring the Peace,” and this really came through with titles of sessions such as “Peace from Roots to Fruits,” “Dear White Peacemakers,” “Jesus is the Peace,” “Trust Peace,” “Feel the Peace,” and “Jesus, Nonviolence, and Peace” just to name a few.  It was good to see us Mennonites exploring one of the things that, perhaps, makes us distinct among denominations, and digging into what it means to be peacemakers in the 21st century. 

The overall theme was “Bring the Peace” and it sure felt like peace was brought front and center. 

As I mentioned in my midweek blog update, I sensed a further underlying theme in a number of the ways that peace was explored by different presenters.  This underlying theme was phrased in many different ways and explored from different angles, but it was present enough to pick it out when it recurred.  This sub-theme that emerged within the exploration of peacemaking was the tension that can sometimes exist in peacemaking between justice and reconciliation. 

In the seminar “Dear White Peacemakers” Osheta Moore named this as the tension between the grit that is required to work toward accountability and social change and the grace that is necessary for us to recognize the face of God in one another, especially when things get hard. 

One of the ways that this tension was explored during the convention that has really stuck with me was the second plenary bible study where Dr. Safwat Marzouk, formerly a professor of Hebrew Bible at AMBS, unpacked the story of Joseph and his brothers through this lens.  Much of what I want to share today comes directly from his presentation, so let me give credit upfront to Dr. Marzouk. 

The story of Joseph and his brothers spans a lot of the book of Genesis, but our focus today is here toward the end of the story, where some might consider the climax of the narrative.  For those of you who might need a quick refresher, Joseph’s brothers were jealous of Joseph because he was their father’s favorite, so they sold him to some traveling merchants and told their father he had died from a wild animal attack.  Joseph was then sold as a slave in Egypt where he eventually gained favor with Pharaoh for his ability to interpret dreams and plan ahead for impending famine.  Meanwhile the brothers weren’t faring so well during the famine and sought aid in Egypt, coming face-to-face with Joseph but not recognizing him.  After a bit of trickery and subterfuge where Joseph pretends to threaten the life of their brother Benjamin, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and offers a word of forgiveness and reassurance to them.  This brings us to our passage for today.  Even if the brothers are still a bit confused as they process just what is happening, this scene feels like a big moment of reconciliation that we, the readers, are meant to recognize as the climax of this saga. 

But along with Marzouk, I have to admit that these words can be a little hard to hear.  Joseph’s reassurance to his brothers seems to ignore the harm and violence that the brothers did to him.  He seems to be ignoring their betrayal with a questionable theology that it was actually God who caused those terrible things to happen.  Sure this is presented as a happy moment of reconciliation, but what does it say about the work of justice?

In order to answer that question in a way that holds together justice and reconciliation, Marzouk points out that we must understand the journey of moral transformation that the brothers have undergone that brought them to this point in the story.  The reconciliation that takes place between the brothers and Joseph is only possible because the brothers have been morally transformed, they are no longer the same people who betrayed Joseph and sold him into slavery. 

This becomes clear in the speech that Judah makes to Joseph immediately before our passage for this morning.  This longest single speech in the book of Genesis has Judah pleading for Benjamin’s life, even offering his own in Benjamin’s stead.  It is a clear reversal from one who once sent his brother to die out of jealousy.  Now it’s as if he is saying, “We are not going to do the same harm to our brother Benjamin that we once did to Joseph.” 

It is this passionate speech that finally sets Joseph over the edge and convinces him to reveal himself to his brothers.  It is this clear indication that those who once betrayed their brother and used their power to do evil have been morally transformed that creates the space necessary for the brothers’ estrangement to begin to melt away. 

A bit later in the narrative, Joseph names clearly that what the brothers did was evil.  He doesn’t downplay it or try to hide it away for the sake of easing this reconciliation.  It needs to be named clearly in order to be able to address it fully.  But what Joseph does that is truly amazing is that he uses his power to break the cycle of violence.  In the very last chapter of Genesis, when the brothers continue to be wary of Joseph’s wrath because they know the evil they did, Joseph responds to them, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” 

Am I in the place of God?

Marzouk pointed out that this episode here at the very end of Genesis almost acts as a counterbalance to the story in the beginning of the book where Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, in a way putting themselves in the place of God.  Through the ages chronicled in Genesis, then, this decision ripples out through one family trauma after another.  Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Ishmael and Isaac, brother pitted against brother as a sort of symbolic representation of humanity’s estrangement from one another and from God. 

Whether or not Joseph is able to completely end this cycle of violence and estrangement, we need to recognize any disruption to these kinds of cycles no matter how small, and celebrate both the grit and grace it takes to make them possible.  In this grand reversal where Joseph finds himself in a place of power over his brothers, he chooses to use that power to begin taking steps to reverse the estrangement of his family because he can see that his brothers have been transformed. 

These brothers who once held their power over Joseph, have undergone a moral transformation in part because they have been able to put themselves in the place of the other.  They were forced to take a journey to Egypt because of the famine, but in the arc of this story, this journey is less about food and more about the brothers’ ability to empathize with the one they had betrayed.  As they walk in Joseph’s shoes on that migratory journey between Canaan and Egypt and stand nearly helpless before those who hold immense power over them, they can begin to understand even just a fraction of what his experience must have been like.

It is through this experience of empathy that the brothers are transformed.  It is through beginning to understand the experience of the other that they begin to understand the evil they had done and, in their own way, disrupt the cycle by resolving to not let it happen again to another brother. 

Marzouk brought the bible study to a close with a reflection on how he hopes the Church can be a place where all people can bring their stories together to help each of us experience the kind of empathy that leads us toward moral transformation. 

While this bible study happened about mid-way through the convention, it seems to have foreshadowed the direction that the convention would be headed.  At the previous convention back in 2019, the forthcoming theme of “Bring the Peace” was revealed during the final worship service where MCUSA’s executive director, Glen Guyton, preached.  You may remember hearing Joel talk about how Guyton started that sermon by singing a version of Nirvana’s song, “Come As You Are.”   That surely caught a lot of Mennonites in the room off guard.  But as the song ended and the sermon continued, he built toward an invitation into the new theme.  It was as if he was letting us know that “Bring the Peace” is what we as a denomination would be focusing on during the upcoming two years. 

Well, this year, Guyton seemed to try to outdo himself.  Instead of Nirvana, he began his sermon with a rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song “Free Bird,” replacing the word “bird” with “dove” and tweaking the lyrics to say that this dove can change.  If that weren’t enough, the sermon closed by revealing what I assume is the new theme for these next two years as Guyton ran around stage wearing a glowing cape while the graphics for the new theme were projected on screen. 

“Be transformed.” 

It was quite a spectacle to watch from behind a video screen, so I can only imagine what people in the room were experiencing. 

But in the midst of the spectacle, I was mostly intrigued by this new theme and where it might take us.  We spent the convention (and perhaps the last two years) as a denomination bringing the peace, but now we are being invited to focus on being transformed.  I can’t help but wonder if this is an attempt to swing us as a denomination between the two sides of the tension in peacemaking that I spoke about earlier. 

Bringing the peace takes a lot of grit to confront injustices and work toward creating spaces where peace can flourish.  It is good and necessary work but without the grace of transformation it can quickly become just that: work.  Grit and grace, justice and reconciliation, bringing the peace and being transformed, these always overlap and hold one another together, but there is a time for everything and perhaps now is our time to focus on what it means to be transformed, what it means to have our lives changed by the stories we encounter and the capacity for empathy that we build in our hearts. 

It remains to be seen how MCUSA is going to focus on transformation during the next two years, but I invite all of us to ask ourselves what kind of transformation we are longing for?  What stories do we need to hear?  What grace do we need to experience?  How can we make room for the Spirit of God to change us and sustain us for the important work ahead?