Remaking History

A few weeks ago, visiting with my family, we realized that my niece and nephew had never seen the movie Groundhog Day. Now, for those of you who don’t know this movie, it’s an Andie MacDowell classic. Bill Murray is also noted for his performance. It’s a movie about a television news producer who travels to the small town in Pennsylvania where the famed groundhog emerges each year to tell the adoring crowd whether the groundhog sees a shadow. This news producer get’s stuck in a time loop with a loutish, self-centered, self-important weather reporter who seems to keep resetting the day, Groundhog Day, over and over and over. Lucky for the producer she doesn’t notice the time loop she’s in. So she doesn’t have to remember the shameless ways the weather reporter, played by Bill Murray, tries manipulatively to win her affections day after day after day.

I’m guessing some of us who have seen the movie might have given a synopsis of the plot differently. Maybe we’d focus on the predicament of the weatherman, and that he can remember from day to repeated day, the things he did and learned all the days prior.

If I could only go back and try again…

If I could have said something else…

If I could have said anything at all…

What could have been, what might have come to pass, are alluring thoughts for some. It’s the stuff of Hollywood dreams and private reveries. But even alone in the shower or in the car, we might think of just the right thing to say, fifteen minutes after the time to say it has passed. But our culture warns us all the time: Don’t go back and change your answers. Studies show you’re more likely to have more wrong answers when you do. Or if you just happen to invent a time machine one morning, someone in the movie of your life will warn you: Don’t change anything or else the rest of existence might also change. Look back. Don’t stare.

These are some of the ways we are told to think about our pasts. They’re done, stitched into the universe in ways that can’t be unraveled or can only be unraveling at a perilous price. There might be unintended consequences. But who wouldn’t love to make a better present by fixing the past? Who wouldn’t be tempted to try to fix maybe just that one thing that we are still thinking about? What would we change, knowing what we know now. What would we prevent? What would be cause? What would we make of today with the chance to change yesterday. I can’t help but wonder. After all, I’m only human.

Even here, on Founder’s Day, when we remember the founding of our church sixty-six years ago, we have a few different ways to look at our own history. One story tells us that Ruth Iams and Rosemary Matson came together to start this church, two matriarchs of a family of faith that blooms anew still today. I understand that until recently Ruth would sometimes visit church on some occasions. Many loved and adored these women who ventured so much so that we might gain a home. Other stories tell us that two men, John Crosson and Donald Gowing, respectively a professor at UH Manoa and a scientist at the Dole plantation, started this church. Wouldn’t it be fun to go back and see what really happened, to get a sense of who was starting what? Did two women actually bring people together Sunday after Sunday, while two men filed some paperwork and got all the credit? I’m not at all saying that’s what happened. It’s only fun to think about history we know of through names, dates, and times, and to consider what was really going on.

Whenever I lead a Path to Engagement class by explaining that it’s OK that we don’t really know exactly who did what. It’s OK that there are differing reports in our own community about who were founders of the church. There are different stories about how our history started together, because that’s exactly what history is—a group of stories that are told, retold, repackaged, reexamined, reframed, remade into something we inherit together.

A few months ago I finished a book about history—The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. There is a streaming television series by the same title, but I’m told it resembles only vaguely the novel that is considered one of the great contributions along a fine line between science fiction and literature. The Man in the High Castle is set in a world where the axis powers won World War II. Germany took over the Eastern part of the United States, and Japan, the Western part. But one of the most shocking parts of the story is how detailed the history is. The author does such a good job of imagining just a few important points in history, a few choices and decisive moments that went another way, so that the history he lays out is hauntingly plausible. And much of the action of the book is set in motion when Adolf Hitler actually dies ostensibly of natural causes, and his group of henchmen jockey for control of the fictional empire left in his wake. The history the author remakes is so real, he even offers the last words of Hitler in the fictionalized tale: “Germans, here I stand.”

The centrality of this event, in a book supposed to re-imagine history, to consider what it would be like to go back in time, makes so much sense. Because what is one of the first things anyone says they would do if they could go back in time? They’d kill Hitler. And it’s not like people didn’t try.

One notable person accused of trying to end that man’s life was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister and theologian. But he joined the secret espionage and spy agency of the Nazi regime in league with and internal opposition to the regime within the spy agency. With his vast international connections and the high regard he enjoyed, he had a perfect cover to work as a double agent. As a reminder, Bonhoeffer was a fully ordained Lutheran minister, with prestigious teaching positions and a glittering theological career. But he saw the horror being loosed upon those that society would not defend, could not defend, and his faith told him that something must be done. But he had help. And not just from within the Nazi resistance…

But let’s go back 15 years before that. See, the Lutheran Church in Germany had rules about the age you had to be to be ordained and Bonhoeffer was only twenty-four. And you had to be ordained to hold a teaching position. Bonhoeffer had finished his studies so admirably and so quickly, that there was little doubt that he would receive a position, but he had to wait to get a little older. He decided in that case to see a bit of life of the United States.

So Bonhoeffer took a position as a visiting instructor at Union Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side of New York City. But he didn’t like it at the school. He liked studying with the acclaimed pastor and teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr. But that’s about it. His words were very plainly and very Germanly spoken, “There is no theology here.” And since he was not being challenged much and had some time, on Sunday’s he’d go walking.

See, before I said Union was on the Upper West Side, and that’s true. But once you walk a few blocks north or a few blocks east from the school, you are in Harlem. And it was there, pouring out from the doors of cathedrals, the likes of which this student of Luther and singer of Bach had never known before, were strains and chords and music the likes of which he could not have imagined. It was in the gospel music of the churches of Harlem right in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance that drew this savant of theology into its powerful embrace. He began attending the Abyssinian Baptist Church, still a bulwark of social justice in the City. He started teaching Sunday school there, and heard preaching from the finest preachers about the Social Justice Gospel. All accompanied and eventually transformed by the music he heard.

Spirituals changed the way he saw the world. They remade what he thought he knew about theology. Friends reported that he returned from New York a changed person. Once interested only in the finer points of scholarship, he was now a devoted pastor interested in the lives of his fellow humans. And it was those messages that helped to shape the way he tried to remake history.

He stayed in Germany for a time until it became too dangerous for agitators and he fled to America once more. But then something happened. As Bonhoeffer watched life getting worse and worse for the undefended, the vulnerable, he did the unthinkable for many. He relinquished his safety in Harlem and returned at last to Germany.

What could have been? What might have happened if he’d stayed? But that was when he began to work as a double agent and contributed to a failed plot to assassinate Hitler and his top advisers. He was jailed and hanged for his actions, only days before the camp that held him was liberated by American forces.

What if I could go back?

What if I could do it over again and make a different choice?

What if I could remake history?

The author of The Man in the High Castle chose the dying words of the despotic maniac carefully. “Here I stand” are the same words attributed to Martin Luther in 1521 when he broke with the Catholic Church officially and began a march for religious freedom that trod a path through the whole of Europe, and indeed through the history of the world,[1] eventually sweeping our own theological forebears onto the shores of Massachusetts at Plymouth Rock. It was on the shoulders of giants that Bonhoeffer stood when he decided to change history. One foot on the shoulder of a person who unshackled many millions from the domination of the Roman Catholic Church, and one foot on the spirituals born of a religion he only truly learned when it came pouring out in song from bodies a nation seemed openly to despise, he had the vision to see what must be done, and try to do it.

Now my philosophy about Sundays is this: we have every other hour of the week to learn what kind of insanity the world looses upon itself. Our newsfeeds, our televisions, our very consciousness is filled with words and actions that set alarm bells off in our heads. And so we do envision together this as a place of refuge, a time of peace, and a time to prepare and restore ourselves for the rest of our lives. And so it is fitting that we consider today the memory of some of our members of this community whose physical voices were silenced, yet speak forever in what we as a church tell the world.

So it is in the name of the free spirits and free minds who set this day in motion so long ago, and those today who care for one another here, who make this a place of refuge for so many, that I am compelled to say, the biggest emergency at the border is seeking to make people into an emergency. The biggest injustice at the border is seeking more and more to rob people of justice. The biggest wall at the border imagines that there is a difference between the dignity of people on one side and the people on the other. All people deserve dignity, all people deserve justice, and no person is an emergency.

Here I stand, in a place that welcomes all to come and explore together what we have in common.

Here I stand, among people who delight as much in what we see the same, as what we see differently.

Here I stand, on the kind, the brave, the strong, the gentle, the loving shoulders of so many who strived always, always for freedom. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of the person, in a word, the freedom to live—Boenhoffer’s final words standing on the gallows were these: “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.” The freedom to live.

Sure we can ask: What if I could go back? What would I do differently? What would I fix? What would I break? Many of us are in hard days now. I know that. Despair is a painful and daunting companion. But in these hours, in these days, in the times to come, remember that we don’t have to wake up and live the same day over and over and over. We don’t have to be trapped in a loop of thought and time. We can stroll down avenues of our minds, of our shared city, of this very church, and happen upon open doors. Doors like ours that welcome so many for so long. And doors that spill forth with the spirit of pain turned into dancing, of grief transformed to joy, of history remade into a better future.

In the times when we wonder what will we do, we can listen to the unending song rising up from our very being and remake dignity for all who enter this place.

In the times when we wonder what will happen, we can take action and respond to the calls of those in pain and remake justice for all with whom we share this hurting world.

And in the times when we wonder how we ever got here, we can take care in the words we speak, take strength from shoulders we steady ourselves upon, and take hold of a vision we glimpse together once more, remaking history for those who one day will enter here.

Happy Founder’s Day, my friends. I am so proud to be among you.

And may it always be so. Blessed be and amen.

 

[1] This is an apocryphal story. Scholars have not been able to confirm Luther spoke these words, which is yet another level of the interesting way history is made and repeated.

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