Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Church: Faithful and Bold in Times of Trial

The late Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara said, quite famously: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

Has anyone been persecuted lately?

Persecution ... it’s one of those odd, old-fashioned Biblical words that doesn’t get a lot of use any more. It seems to come from a time when early Christians were being thrown to the lions by Roman empererors.

But we know that the suffering and tribulations of the early church were very real ... until the time of Emperor Constantine in the 300’s, Christianity was thought of as a cult ... a nuisance at least, but possible a dangerous cult. And if the persecution of Christians within the Roman empire ended when Constantine converted to Christianity, we know that the persecution of Christians and other people of faith continues into this very day. Mosques and synagogues continue to suffer the indignities of vandalism or the pure crime of arson. The young white supremacist that was arrested in Yuba City in recent weeks was coming to California to see how many Jews he could kill.

Persecution is described as “the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another group. The most common forms are religious persecution, ethnic persecution, and political persecution, though there is naturally some overlap between these terms. The inflicting of suffering, harassment, isolation, imprisonment, fear, or pain are all factors that may establish persecution.”

Sometimes, persecution comes simply because of who we are … our “difference” … our unique culture, or ways of observing our faith. Muslim women wearing head-scarves or Sikh men in their turbans are likely to suffer verbal abuse or worse in places where these are not common.

But sometimes, persecution comes about as a result of engaging in the struggle against injustice … speaking out against unjust systems … standing with the oppressed … aligning oneself with the poor and against those that make them that way. Even expressing your solidarity with others who are persecuted can make you a target for persecution.

In the 1990’s, a conflict was escalating among American Baptists, as well as most other Christian denominations, around the painfully delicate topic of human sexuality. The conflict centered around just who was worthy of a full place at Christ’s table. And the conflict was about those churches that offered a full place at Christ’s table without condemnation to all who came. It’s like what I heard one of the Glide Memorial Church pastors say once: “If God made you, we want you.”

The region in which we belonged had other thoughts about the relative wideness of God’s mercy and decided to kick out four churches that took the wideness of God’s mercy a little too literally. If, as we’ve heard, persecution is, among other things, “The inflicting of suffering, harassment, isolation ...” well, this qualifies as persecution.

Now interestingly Shell Ridge was not among those kicked out ... we were flying a bit below the radar at that time and only “came out” as a welcoming and affirming congregation some years later. We were not silent in the struggle by any means, but our solidarity was limited to our voices and our presence. Only much later did we risk our membership in a region where we clearly no longer belonged.

Persecution comes in many degrees when one struggles against injustice. A child in elementary school who befriends an outcast may get ostracized by her classmates—a heavy cost at that tender age. But an Archbishop who stands up against his entire government as it oppresses and slaughters its own people will pay with his life. This is the story of martyred El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. His is a story that has been told many times in many ways from this pulpit.

It is interesting to note that for most of his career, Oscar Romero was a “go along to get along” kind of priest. He was fairly conservative and traditional. When Romero was chosen to be the new Archbishop of San Salvador, more progressive Catholics and friends of the campesinos were horrified. Campesinos are the working rural poor against whom the U.S. supported El Salvadoran government was waging a brutal war. The Catholic church in these kinds of conflicts too often sided with the powers that be ... they implicitly and sometimes explicitly supported the oppressive government.

If Romero began that way, it was witnessing the assassination of one of his dearest friends that turned him around. Progressive Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande was helping to organize self-reliance groups among the campesinos when he was shot down by government death squads. Romero went to the little village to mourn his friend and he said: "When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path'". This was only a month after Romero had been appointed archbishop.

Walking the same path for Archbishop Romero meant supporting the poor in their campaign for justice and fairness and an end to the violence against them. Walking the same path for Oscar Romero meant, as he surely knew when he spoke those words, receiving the same fate as his martyred friend. Just three years into his outspoken solidarity with the poor, Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered while celebrating communion. Shot down as he lifted up the cup of Christ’s blood poured out for all. On the 30th anniversary of his death, just last year, the government formally apologized for its role in Romero’s martyrdom.

In that time of bitter struggle in El Salvador, it wasn’t only the Catholic priests who were targets for persecution. One of the stories that has become interwoven into our own Shell Ridge stories is of Baptists in El Salvador who were also being bullied and threatened and persecuted because of their concern for the poor and their opposition to government sponsored oppression and violence.

Gerson and Carlos Sanchez became a part of this congregation a half dozen or so years ago. And we learned that, like me, they are children of a Baptist minister ... this one a longtime pastor from San Salvador, the same city where Oscar Romero was archbishop. Pastor Carlos Sanchez Sr. has witnessed the struggle for basic human rights and has become aligned enough with that struggle so that he too became a target.

We are deeply privileged to be able to welcome Carlos and Gerson’s father among us today to speak a little about his own experience with persecution and what it means to live and minister with hope in the midst of difficulties that come our way as a result of commitments we have made.

Questions for Pastor Sanchez:


· The background and context for this conversation is this morning’s sermon-text from First Thessalonians where Paul praises the Thessalonian church for being an extraordinary light and example of the gospel in spite of the persecution they had faced and endured.

· I feel like I know enough (but not a lot) about Primera Iglesia Bautista de San Salvador to believe that its experience--and your experience, Pastor Sanchez-- approximates the Thessalonian church in some ways. You and your congregation have been a bright light and example of the gospel of Christ in spite of the persecution you have faced and endured.


· Describe the circumstances of your “persecution” as a church and a pastor … How have you and your congregation persisted and flourished and stayed faithful in the midst of your challenges/persecution?

· What word(s) do the North American churches/Christians need to hear that grows out of today's text, your and your church's experience, and your perceptions of our world and its many needs? How might we live out the gospel message/example of Jesus more faithfully, fearlessly and fruitfully?

This morning we’ve been given an opportunity to hear a voice from beyond our walls … and beyond our borders. Persons and churches are always wise to hear and attend carefully to the loving observations of others. Even as we acknowledge the ways in which we participate in the slow birthing of God’s Shalom on earth, we know that more is needed and more is expected. It’s in our Christian DNA. It’s who are we and it’s what we are to be about.

We live in a culture which has a tendency to stifle and smother prophetic instincts and action. We live in a culture where we are encouraged at nearly every step to “go along to get along.” And in this culture where so many “small gods” capture the utter loyalty of so many, including many of us to a large degree, we have to work hard to overcome culture’s demands on us to not stand out—even if the need to stand out in the face of injustice is right before us.

And as true as it may be in our own time, it’s not a new truth. Early Christian father, St. Augustine said: "For evil to triumph, the good have only to remain silent." Shortly before his death, Martin Luther King echoed these words of Augustine when he wrote, "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

A dozen or so years ago we were privileged to have Alan Boesak preach at Micky Holmes’ ordination. Boesak is a South African pastor and one of the leading lights in the movement to dismantle apartheid and bring a new era of truth and reconciliation to South Africa. In his sermon Boesak spoke of the ultimate danger of any quietism and appalling silences that the modern church might be guilty of. Boesak said: "We will go before God to be judged, and God will ask us: 'Where are your wounds?' and we will say, 'We have no wounds.' And God will ask, 'Was nothing worth fighting for?'”

As we watch the occupation of Wall Street and many other streets … as we observe the enormous inequities persist among this planet’s peoples … as we watch the degradation of our environment … as we consider the continuous struggle and mostly failure to create a just and lasting peace … it is worth looking in that proverbial mirror and asking ourselves: “Where are our wounds? And … what is worth fighting for?”

As we approach and enter our time of prayer, let us also be reminded of the joyous and redemptive communities of faith in Thessalonika of Paul’s time and in San Salvador in our time. The work of healing and peace not only does not need to be grim, joyless work by a grim, joyless people … it is that very work that can strip away our grimness and return joy where it has become a stranger to us. And the work of healing and peace, performed as we live and work and walk in the ways of Jesus, has the power to bring a deep and lasting joy to all.

Let us be called to this time of prayer and reflection as we sing together our call to prayer, “Santo, Santo, Santo” …

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