U-C: What I See

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A sermon from Havana


I recently returned from Cuba. I thought that some of you might appreciate a copy of the final sermon I preached there at First Presbyterian Church of Havana. If you are a Spanish speaker, you can listen to the audio at the following website: www.prccuba.org. I didn't follow my outline word for word, and this is my hurried translation from English to Spanish, but it is quite close.

Reading from John: 12:20 – 33

Sir, We want to see Jesus!

I studied Spanish during a season of Lent almost twenty years ago. I’ll never forget the experience, which had a great impact on me. Each week there was a vigil in a different Catholic Church in the villages surrounding the city of Antigua. The people would create beautiful carpets made of sawdust died different colors, carpets that were so finely constructed that they looked almost oriental. Everyone would bring fruit and vegetables and flowers to offer during this important time of marking the season of Lent, and they would vigil most of the night in prayer and song in preparation – and act of faithful remembrance in preparation for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Then, on Maundy Thursday, all of the people of Antigua stayed up all night, and many families constructed their own beautiful, sawdust carpets in the street in front of their homes. Later, at daybreak, we all gathered in one of the ancient convents destroyed by earthquake over one hundred years ago, and as the sun rose, men dressed as Roman soldiers entered the inner courtyard on horseback and arrested Jesus from our midst. Then, we formed a great procession, following a huge, wooden platform with the figure of Jesus dragging his cross up Calvary, carried by more than one hundred men. As we followed the rest of the procession, we walked through the streets of Antigua, trampling the carpets so laboriously prepared during the long night before.

I supposed that that after all of the focus on the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion, that the service marking the resurrection on Easter Sunday morning would be significant, indeed. However, when I attended Mass at the large Cathedral on the square in Antigua that Sunday morning, I was surprised to find a service that felt fairly typical, with little celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. It made me realize that for Catholic Guatemalans, Lent was all about the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, with little or no emphasis on the empty tomb. Perhaps their focus grows out of their experience of five hundred years of conquest and close to forty years of a bloody civil war in their country.

This is a dramatic contrast to my own experience of Lent. In the church of comfort and privilege in which I grew up, there was little or no emphasis on the crucifixion, by Easter Sunday morning was a marvelous celebration! For us, Lent was primarily about the empty tomb and the resurrection, with little or no focus on the suffering experienced by Jesus in his crucifixion.

A few months later, I arrived on the U.S./Mexico border where I joined Southside Presbyterian Church, which is the only Presbyterian Church I’ve ever attended that has a crucifix on the wall in the sanctuary instead of the traditional cross. Over the years I’ve learned that this is a theologically intentional statement. This church has learned from its experience with Central American refugees over the years that you can’t get to the moment of resurrection without passing the way of the pain and suffering of the cross.

This seems to me to speak to my experience of the Cuban church during my travels here this week. This is a church that has passed through incredibly difficult moments of crucifixion, in which the church of the 1970’s and 1980’s almost died on the vine.

It makes me think that during those difficult years for the church, there were clearly people who were brave and courageous, much like the witness of the Greeks in this passage from John this morning, who came to Philip saying, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” This was no easy task for them either, was it? Remember that this was a moment in which Jesus was hiding from the religious authorities, (not because he was afraid but because his time had not yet come), and they were seeking to arrest and try both him and Lazarus. Seeking out Jesus at this moment demanded great courage.

Perhaps, that’s the kind of courage that was shown by those of you who helped keep the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Cuba alive during those incredibly difficult years. I’m told that the seminary was largely empty and that most folks were afraid to go to church during those years, and yet there were some of you who kept the church alive in spite of all of the challenges that you confronted. You, like those Greeks who approached Philip, were saying, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

And now, some fifteen to twenty years later, many others have joined that chorus of those who remained faithful during those difficult years.

I see it in the young people who are energizing each of the congregations that I have visited this week. In them, I see a church that is insisting, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

I see it in the faithful of this congregation here in the center of Havana who have committed to come and open the sanctuary each day so that anyone who desires can come in for moments of prayer and respite and escape the pressures of life in this city. This is another way of saying “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

I see it in the growth that I say happening in almost every congregation we visited this week, and made obvious in the fact that so many of your churches have taken on huge renovation and building projects as new members have begun to knock on your doors. So many of your churches, like the one at Sagua La Grande, have insisted that God isn’t finished with your yet.Yet another way to say, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

I hear that chorus in the churches I’ve visited this week that understand their mission to reach out to those in need all around them. Several of the churches I visited are cooking meals for shut-ins who are disabled, and others are cleaning laundry for older folks who can’t get out and about to do it themselves any more. I felt that witness of courage so strongly as I encountered churches and projects designed to support persons with Aids and HIV, offering them a safe place to gather and support one another. Each of these is another expression of that insistence, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

I felt the courage also as I learned of small group Bible studies that are taking place in your homes – forty-three of them right now in this congregation, and dozens more in many of the other churches I’ve visited this week. This is another sign that you are a people who will continue to say, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

Finally, I felt the desire to see Jesus in the young Pastors I met this week who are filling the pulpits in many of the churches I’ve been to. They are clear that, in spite of the many hardships that exist, they are called by Jesus to create the new church for the future of Cuba. Another way of insisting, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

Sisters and Brothers, in this anniversary celebration of forty years since the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Cuba became independent, a celebration of one hundred years since the building of this church here in Havana, and twenty years since the renewal of the partnership between our two denominations, we say once again with one another, “Senor, we want to see Jesus.

But celebration of courage isn’t the whole story for us, nor was it the entire story of the text before us this morning either. Jesus is clear in this text as he prepares his disciples for the difficult moments still to come, that he is calling us to sacrifice and to take serious risks. Jesus said, “if you serve me, follow me.” This is no easy task. After all, Jesus wasn’t crucified for being sweet. Rather, he was crucified because he was calling into question the fundamental underpinnings of his own society. He was questioning the unfair structures of oppression that marginalized the vast majority of people and pushed them to the edges of the society. Make no mistake, Jesus was a threat to both the religious and the political leaders of his time, and that ‘s why we’re remembering his trial and his death on a cross during this Lenten season some 2000 years later.

Jesus was insistent. “If you serve me – follow me.” Follow me through the pain and the suffering of the cross, follow me to the margins.

I’m not sure I can speak with any authority about your experience of the cross here in Cuba – or what it would take to be genuine followers of Jesus in this context as you follow the “Jesus of the cross,” but I can reflect on our task as followers of the Lenten Jesus in our own culture. Here are the critical questions I believe that our church must ask:

How will we, a church of privilege and wealth and power in the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth, respond to the growing gap between us and 2/3 of the world’s population? Every day the members of our churches are more and more separated from our sisters and brothers around the world. How will we respond to our sisters and brothers who don’t have enough to feed their children? Do we have the courage to stand with this kind of Jesus who insists, “if you serve me, follow me” – even to the margins.

How will we as a church respond to the growing conviction that terror rules our world and that we must dominate the entire the world, even attacking without provocation others whom we think might attempt to harm us. Are we willing, as the church of Jesus Christ, to insist that our security comes from fundamental Christian values of love and care from one another. Genuine security, we must insist, will come only when we free ourselves from the conviction that it is reasonable to impose our will, in the interests of our security, all over the world?

“if you serve me, follow me.”

How will stand against our fear of other and our xenophobia when it comes to receiving the stranger? Will we stand – together with Jesus - with the migrants and immigrants who are being cast out in our society? I believe that Jesus is entirely serious and he is speaking directly to us on this matter when he says, “if you serve me, follow me.” During Jesus entry into Jerusalem, it is quite clear that he is suggesting we must follow the way of the cross. Jesus is not playing around. His words are not easy and they offer little comfort to those in my own church during these troubled times. But what if he means it?

“if you serve me, follow me.”

Having named some of the challenges we will confront as church in the United States, it isn’t hard to name some of the more obvious challenges in your own context here in Cuba. These will be your own challenges, along with many others that I know you can name.

How will the Church of Cuba respond to an obvious sense of malaise among your young people? It is clear to me after a few short days that many, many of your younger generation feel no genuine sense of hope. Why get an education if there is no way to ever get ahead? What future is there for us here?

And, how will your church respond to and critique the development of what I have heard some call the “double economy” here in Cuba? In a land where there has been so clear a commitment to basic equality, fairness and equity, it seems clear to me that your church also will have to the respond to the reality of economic “haves” and “have-nots.” The gap between those who have access to the new economy and those who will never have access is only likely to grow and grow.

“if you serve me, follow me.”

And how will your churches respond to the growing lack of even the most basic services that everyone knows is a reality in your country. What is the role of the church in articulating a critique in a country where housing is substandard and overcrowded, hospitals are without medicine, and schools are underfunded? How will we create a church presence that will insist that it will stand for the fundamental values of Jesus Christ in your country as well as in mine?

Brothers and Sisters, as you celebrate these important anniversaries, I expect that you, like my sisters and brothers in the church in the United States, are asking yourselves how you also will take that basic demand of Jesus seriously, “if you serve me, follow me!” Your challenges, like ours, are huge.

As I return to the United States, I commit to you that I will continue to challenge my own people about what it will take to be faithful in our context. And, I will share the open, alive and wonderful spirit that is so strong in your church – a spirit that gives lie to the statements by my own government that there is no religious liberty here to have church services or to live ones faith, and therefore there is no church. But I will also say to my people that you, like us, face great challenges in your own church. Your church in your context here in Cuba, is also struggling to be faithful to that call to follow Jesus.

Together, we can create a world that will honor our God. Together, we can insist that we will find the courage, together, to say:

“Senor, Queremos ver a Jesus.” May God bless all of us in responding to the challenges put before us by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Rick Ufford-Chase,
First Presbyterian Church, Havana, Cuba
Standing room only (more than three hundred people present)
April 2, 2006