God of History, God of Eternity, God of Life

Paul Fitch

June 20, 2021

God of History, God of eternity, God of life, speaking to us, acting through us, in the midst of the storm.

Good morning! Happy (belated) Juneteenth; happy Father’s Day; happy summer solstice! We are blessed to be joining together, before God, in the presence of one another, even though physically we are yet apart.

In the Old Testament reading, God responds, speaking out of the torment of a storm, to Job’s many professions of innocence as he had been subjected to so many afflictions and much slander, even though he considered himself a righteous man. God asks Job,

Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself, I will question you, and you will answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone - while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

In other words, God is telling Job that, in spite of his great efforts to be God’s faithful servant, efforts that are undeterred even in the midst of his “unjust” sufferings, that God has a deeper purpose and Job really doesn’t know what he is talking about.

I wonder, in my own life and in our lives together as a church, as I/we consider that we live basically just lives, in contrast to much of society, how much of my/our deeply entrenched beliefs are borne out of a deeper truth and how much are they a result of my upbringing, of societal perceptions, or personal bias?

Today’s Gospel reading tells us how, after a long day of teaching the crowd along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus and the disciples cross over, and there are also other boats with them, to the other side. To go to the other side signified not only a physical movement from one place to another, but it was also a form of border crossing, as they went from the territory of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes. But, along the way, as sometimes happens in that broad, open landscape, a strong wind blew down out of the mountains, funneling into a furious squall that caused waves to break over the boat so that it was nearly swamped. In the midst of this, Jesus had been sleeping peacefully on a cushion in the stern of the boat. The frantic disciples wake him, and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Jesus then says to the wind and the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” and then, to the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” But they remain terrified.

In Paul’s letter to the community in Corinth, he refers to them as God’s co-workers and says that they are in the day of salvation, even as he speaks of many hardships, including “beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger,” and that they will be “beaten, but not killed.” These are the physical torments, the storm that sweeps over them in their lives as they seek to be faithful witnesses to Christ, at a time when to do such carried much risk. In the midst of this all, he says he is speaking as a parent to his children, imploring them to open wide their hearts, as he has opened his heart.

I see, reflected in these scriptures, the presence of God manifested in two ways. One is in a very broad, timeless way which simultaneously embraces the infinite and eternal timelessness of all creation and its joining in intimate meeting, in this moment, with this presence. I have experienced this towards the end of certain long wilderness sojourns, such as when I stood alone before the gravelly bank of a broad Alaskan river under a night sky with the aurora borealis dancing around and streaming across the sky and, another time, when I sat high on a mountain perch in the Sierra Nevadas after days alone and felt as if I was about to melt into the eternity of it all. Other times it is simpler and less spectacular, such as when I’ve sat upon the porch of the Lodge of the Carpenter, at Dayspring and felt the flow of the air, of the land, and all the life about move through me.

God is also present in life day-to-day, in times of joy, in times of struggle, and in times of sadness, through our affirming of God through a life from the heart, seeking love, justice, and peace, or in our denial of God where our fears or our hardness of heart separate us from one another or from the earth, of which we are part and which nurtures and sustains us. This separation results in greed, hatred, violence, and destruction.

God also becomes manifest in community and people acting with God within history.

What are the storms within our own history?

There are certain key dates in terms of our history as a country on this North American continent. One is in 1492, when Columbus, who was in part an earnest explorer and scientist, but also a representative of Mediterranean/European culture carrying all its destructive biases, opens up contact with “new,” thoroughly inhabited continents, with highly destructive results.

Then, 402 years ago, in 1619, after European settlers found that 1) it was difficult to enslave the original peoples of this land because they knew it too well and could defend themselves and 2) the diseases they brought decimated the indigenous populations, the first captive Africans arrived to be made slaves in the Virginia colony. This followed enslavement of Africans in other lands to the south beginning over a hundred years earlier.

Slavery of Africans, and of their descendants, continued for another 246 years in what is now the United States, until June 19th, 1865. Texas was the last state to be forced, by the Union troops, to free its quarter million slaves. It was a state to which many slave owners had moved their plantations in hopes of perpetuating slavery as the realm of the southern Confederacy slowly moved towards defeat.

I reflect that recently, as my wife, Videlbina, and I were watching a documentary about slavery, that showed many atrocities against the African descendants, she commented that the mistreatment of people in her home town of Pasaquina, El Salvador, in time of war, when she was a teenager and afterwards, was as extreme as the mistreatment of slaves the documentary portrayed. Even as she was threatened by the military establishment because she led Bible studies teaching people to reflect that God wanted something better for their lives (a subversive concept), because she supported the “wrong” presidential candidate, and as she refused to show appropriate deference to the military on “Soldiers’ Day,” many people in her town, including relatives, were raped, tortured, murdered, or “disappeared,” never to be seen again.

This brings us to now, June of 2021. We are beginning to regain a certain equilibrium in our country, after four years of a terribly polarizing time, but not a lot has yet been changed. We are experiencing the hope of an end to a terrible pandemic that has killed over 600,000 people in our land, including various loved ones of ours, such as our beloved William, Robert Doan, and Dave Macmillan’s brother. Even now hundreds still die each day in the United States, as well as many thousands throughout the world. There is no clear end in sight, especially in the global south (my mother-in-law’s death in El Salvador was likely of Covid).

Through the Black Lives Matter movement, we, as a nation, are rising to a higher level of awareness of the indignities and violence our Afro-American neighbors, brothers, and sisters are subject to by the police and the judicial system, but the culture of violence against them by the police, and of punishment without transformative rehabilitation, has not changed significantly, nor has that of mass incarceration instead of social investment for change.

It is a triumph that Juneteenth is now a national holiday. We may rejoice as we experience a little more unity as a nation seeking to overcome past wrongs, the effects of which bleed over into present times. But what about reparations? What about making the sacrifices and true, life changing, efforts to begin to heal, that should include most of the African continent, whose prosperity was destroyed by the slave trade, and by subsequent European colonialization. What about the innumerable George Floyds, Breonna Taylors, Trayvon Martins, their families, their communities? How may they be made whole?

What about the rest of the world, beyond the United States? What if the wealth of this nation is a result of the pillaging resources around the globe, and making miserable, the lives of great multitudes around the world? What if our supposed good fortune is not simply a matter of luck, intelligence, societal structure, science, technology, and a somewhat democratic form of governance? What if our way of life really represses so much of the rest of the world, creating a separation among peoples as great as that between slaves and their masters?

I don’t have clear answers to these questions, but, as our dear Ann Barnet expresses in her book, Border Crossings, I have been able to see life, even if often vicariously, from the other side, first as I came to know refugees from Central America starting in the early 1980’s and later as I went to live in Central America, especially in El Salvador. Now, within our church, there is a renewed movement emerging of accompanying and experiencing with our immigrant neighbors, sisters, and brothers their hopes and indignities as they claim dignity and rights within their own lives.

As I now go back and forth so much between here and El Salvador, I am engaged in life there to the degree that that nation has become my second home. Guatemala, Honduras, and, to a lesser degree, Nicaragua, have come to be countries I know that have impacted my life. What these four countries have in common is that, during the course of my lifetime, their peoples’ rights to self-determination and their hopes and broad movement towards a dignified life for all have been decimated by the military, political, and economic intervention of my own country.

The good news is that there are yet brave, determined people and movements in those countries, and in mine, seeking ever to be an undercurrent for change. As our Kent Beduhn expressed in his lovely new song, we are to walk alongside one another towards a better land. I have sought, in small ways, to be part of these movements, and to walk alongside the people of struggle and hope. In this church we all have, each in our own ways, walk alongside people of struggle and hope.

There is much talk throughout the land about the border crisis and of the immigrant problem. Even as the Biden administration is seeking a more humane immigration policy, Vice President Kamela Harris traveled recently to Guatemala and told people there who were thinking about making the trek to our southern border, “Do not come. Do not come.” One of my favorite congresswomen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, responding by saying, “The U.S. spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

I will be leaving my home in Washington, DC, very soon, on June 28th, to travel again to El Salvador, from which I will travel, on July 1st with a dear friend, Lutheran Pastor Leonel Cruz, to join, as a delegate from 8th Day Church, a faith based group from the U.S. to Honduras, to accompany and support rural communities and indigenous and black organizations as they seek to rebuild and plant anew crops following the Eta and Iota hurricanes of last year that destroyed their homes and livelihoods. These storms, in addition to the storm of living in a country with a government unresponsive to the needs of the poor majority, resulted in hunger, misery, and increased migration in search of survival in an uncertain future in a foreign land.

 Hosted by Honduran grass roots faith leaders, we will hear their stories and share ours, and will bring their stories back to the U.S. to share here. We will visit political prisoners, whose only crime was to have protested an illegal mining operation in the mountains above their village that led to the contamination of the rivers which supplied water to their community. We will visit the town (La Esperanza, meaning “Hope”) of the most universal Honduran activist, Berta Caceres, who had organized a broad range of people to defend indigenous, environmental, women’s’, social, and political rights and who was murdered five years ago because her organization, COPINH (Civic Council of Popular indigenous Organizations of Honduras) successfully resisted the construction of a dam on the Gualcarque River that had not received the necessary approval of the affected Lenca (indigenous) communities. We may even be present at the trial of the company official considered to be the person who arranged Berta Caceres’s murder.

I first visited Honduras in 1985, when I visited the Salvadoran refugee camp of Mesa Grande there. I first became involved with Honduras after the 2009 coup d’état there, which overthrew the progressive government of Mel Zelaya, with the subsequent blessing of the Obama administration. I guess I was naïve as I was distraught to be incredulous that a coup would occur in Latin America in the 21st century. I was there later, in 2013, with a delegation visiting human rights organizations and observing fraud in the presidential elections. I was there in 2018 witnessing the protests, the outrage, and the police repression accompanying the illegal re-inauguration of president Juan Orlando Hernandez, following electoral fraud. In 2019 I went there to vigil outside the courthouse, with family and community members, as well as be present within the courtroom, where initial hearings for 12 people, falsely accused of crimes as they protested the above-mentioned illegal mining above their village were being held. I then spent two long days outside the prison where they were being held, as their release was delayed even after it was ordered by the judge.

In the midst of that hearing, I escaped for 36 hours to go to the gathering at a rural outdoor retreat center commemorating the third anniversary of the “planting” of Berta Caceres. It was an inspiring event, attended mainly by humble people from the countryside and by members of indigenous and Garifuna (Afro-Caribbean) organizations. I heard moving speeches, met old friends (including former 8th Day community member Andres Contreras [anyone remember him?]), made new friends, and remained late into the night enjoying numerous live musical and theatrical groups until, finally, well past midnight, I finally got a ride into town where I had a bed to pass the night.

To share just a brief segment of that gathering, I present part of a speech that Berta Caceres’s mother made, for which I will read its translation afterwards. I also heard the impassioned speeches of two of Berta’s daughters are very impressive young women who are now strong leaders in the same broad movement encompassed by their mother, who they refer to as “companion.”

I say again, that those who believed they killed Berta were mistaken, because she continues to live all over the world, especially in women, in the mountains, in rivers, in nature. God has reserved for her a place in heaven and in the hearts of each and every one, especially in the women and all the organizations that fight for a strong change in the country. I say that you are well received.  I do not say thank you for being here because it seems to me that it is an obligation to honor the life of Bertita, who shed her blood, as our Lord Jesus shed his blood, in order to redeem the indigenous peoples, so that their territories will not be taken away, that our water not be taken from us, that do not take away all the things that God has given us to survive. Thank you very much. Hugs. Bertita lives forever. Long live Berta Cáceres! Long live Copinh! (Civic Council of Popular indigenous Organizations of Honduras).

As I conclude this teaching, I want to emphasize that, even as the subject matter of much of my experience in Honduras (and in other lands) is heavy, involving destruction, persecution, even death, that my overall experience with people there has been one of a lively embrace of the spirit, of determination, of seeing beyond the present moment to the potential of the future, and of celebration. I have seldom experienced so much grateful expressions of giving over to the cause of love and justice, of a joyful greeting of one another, and of entering into song and dance. The people of leadership I have met there do not exude a sense of importance, but rather of humility and of integrity. I come to feel that this is like being, for example, as if I was in the presence of a Martin Luther King, Jr., an Oscar Romero, a Mother Teresa, of Jesus Christ, or of any number of moving, perhaps unrecognized, people of history.  I sometimes feel that I am before a great presence, even if I do not fully know it. What then shall I do?

The storms carry us forward, and the calm centers our life.

Amen.