By Pastor Sarah Stadler
Oscar Romero was a Roman Catholic priest turned bishop and then archbishop of El Salvador from 1977 until 1980 when he was assassinated by para-military personnel inside a church in the middle of a worship service he was leading.
During those three years, he used the pulpit and his regular weekly radio address to call out corruption among El Salvador’s leaders and the repression of the Salvadoran people. There were many things to fear in El Salvador in the late 1970s: disappearances, torture, rape, murder, the low-level threat of military occupation of city streets. In this context, on November 13, 1977, preaching on the very same biblical passage we read today, Archbishop Romero echoed Jesus’ words. He said: I tell you, brothers and sisters, let us not be frightened.
Jesus tells the disciples about the scary things that will happen, war and natural disasters, persecution and destruction, and these things did indeed happen. In 70 of the common era, 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, Jerusalem and the temple in Jerusalem were destroyed in a short but devastating war. As soon as Jesus was crucified, the disciples were persecuted because of their faith in Christ. Leaders appeared in Israel claiming they were the messiah. Natural disasters shook the earth and its people. All of this happened, and all of this still happens. Now in the wake of the election here in the US, some of us are saying that we are on the road to destruction, that our nation will crumble, that all appears to be lost. Whether or not you are also thinking these things, let us note to give ourselves perspective, these same words have been spoken about the election of at least the previous two presidents. And whether or not you agree with the policies of our previous two presidents, we are still here. All is not lost. This is a new time, with more divisive rhetoric, a not very diplomatic person, we might say. I’ve definitely said this. And I too have been afraid. Then, I read Jesus’ words to the disciples. They lived in a very tense situation, not so unlike El Salvador in the late 1970s. Yet, Jesus has the gall to say: Do not be afraid when there are some very scary things happening, some very scary things about to happen.
And even if we are not afraid of what is happening in our nation, we know that in our complex lives, as we deal with health and relationships, employment and whatever has happened in our pasts, with struggles around meaning and purpose, as we try to just be ourselves and love ourselves and love one another, there are things of which we are afraid. My favorite poet Audre Lorde wrote in A Litany for Survival:
And when the sun rises we are afraid
It might not remain
When the sun sets we are afraid
It might not rise in the morning
When our stomachs are full we are afraid
When our stomachs are empty we are afraid
We may never eat again
When we are loved we are afraid
Love will vanish
When we are alone we are afraid
Love will never return
And when we speak we are afraid
Our words will not be heard
But when we are silent
We are still afraid.
Still, Jesus has the gall to say: Do not be afraid.
Some things are just scary. Some things are just hard. Some things are just complex. And when Jesus talks about the world, I don’t think that he’s necessarily giving us a recipe for the end times but talking about what is—in a complex world. The greatest evidence of the fact that he wasn’t talking about the end times is that all these things happened, and all these things continue to happen. And we are still here.
In the end of our reading for today, Jesus speaks of the faith and the hope and the perseverance to move forward. This week, I was talking with a couple about a very difficult and complex situation in their lives. In this situation, there are some steps that can be taken to resolve the difficulties, but whether those steps are enough or what the couple wants to do is another question. We were talking about what is truly helpful as they struggle through this time…because there really is nothing that anyone else can do to be helpful besides listen. But we noted that, in general, people want to be able to fix things for others, that, when we hear a story that seems very, very difficult, we rush to try and make things okay. Sometimes, things aren’t okay, and about all we can say is: “Well, shoot. That’s not good. I’m so sorry.” That really is the extent to which we can respond sometimes. That really can be the most helpful response…instead of the clichés and the empty phrases. Don’t worry; everything will work out. You are strong; you can do this. Everything happens for a reason. (All of those things may be true, but it’s usually not helpful to say that when someone comes to you with a problem.)
This week’s gospel lesson, El Salvador circa 1977, our current state of affairs here in the US, and the complexities of our own lives are four of those situations where they’re just complex. They’re just hard. They’re just scary. There’s no answer. We can’t make it simple. Empty promises are just that—empty. But here’s what I know to be true: in all of those past situations and in all that is to come, God is at work, so we need not be afraid. We move forward with faith and hope and perseverance because, no matter what happens, God doesn’t give up on us, not for a moment. God continues to pour out love and grace, mercy and forgiveness on this broken world, and that love and grace, mercy and forgiveness flow out of us and into our community, into our relationships with friends and enemies alike, into the actions of our hands as we do the work of justice and peace to which we are called by God. Yes, being the hands and feet of Christ in a broken world is hard. Maybe the world feels more broken today than it did last week, but the difficulty of the journey does not negate the promises of God. And if scour the Bible for the message that God most often sent through the prophets and patriarchs, the matriarchs and apostles, the message is this: Do not be afraid.
- God said to Abraham (what did God say?): Do not be afraid.
- God said to Isaac: Do not be afraid.
- Moses said to the people: Do not be afraid.
- Joshua said to the people: Do not be afraid.
- Jonathan said to David: Do not be afraid.
- The angel of the Lord said to Joseph: Do not be afraid.
- The angel said to Mary: Do not be afraid.
- The angel said to the shepherds: Do not be afraid.
- The angel said to the women at the tomb: Do not be afraid.
- The Lord said to Paul: Do not be afraid.
- And Jesus said: Do not be afraid.