You Are Not Alone
Hola! I bring you greetings from the Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada en Cuba at Union de Reyes y Sabanilla. As I mentioned this morning I told both of these congregations that I was not there as a missionary. I was there for missionary training. I say this, in part, because our Presbytery has the longest standing relationship of any presbytery in the PC(USA) with the Presbytery of Matanzas (over 30 years), and it would be foolish to think of our relationship as anything less than mutual partners proclaiming Christ together.
I must admit that even though I had that in mind from the beginning, I had no idea what I would actually experience once I got there. I have grown up during the time of the embargo. I do not know what it was like to live under the very real nuclear threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Likewise I do not know what it was like to live in a country tossed between an oppressive dictator backed by the United States and violent guerrilla warriors like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
I guess that I was somewhat anticipating a scene like Paul encountered in Athens – a people who were aware of God’s presence yet still open and seeking. I suppose that is true, in as much as it is true for any of us. The Cuban churches we visited and the people we met were very different from us in many ways – language, culture, economics – yet many of their struggles are the same. The Presbyterian congregations are facing generational issues. They are one voice among many, and some fear that the more conservative and fundamentalist churches are gaining ground. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church remains in the majority. Sound familiar?
I think that was part of what motivated a question that was asked when we visited the seminary in Matanzas. We had a Q & A with some students, faculty, and our PC(USA) Mission Co-worker (the first stationed in Cuba in quite a while). One of our group members asked, “What is the Presbyterian Church doing to differentiate itself?” In other words, she wanted to know what their unique witness was like.
A few of them spoke about “Mission Congregations” that are a lot like our “New Worshiping Communities.” Darrel [Dar-heel] spoke up (he was my translator when I preached) and said that he felt that what made them unique was not only that the Cuban Presbyterians were more accepting of others – regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation – but it was also the fact that they believed that the church is not separate from the community. The church is not a place where programs involve certain people who are members of the church. The church is a community of believers who are intimately involved in the lives of the people who live in the same area as the church.
As I reflect on these conversations I feel a lot less like Paul and a lot more like an Athenian. I hear these words as a call to repentance. I don’t mean to say that I’m a horrible person or that you are. Paul’s call to repentance to the Greeks was not the same as Peter’s call to the Jews. Peter was acusational. Paul was offering his call to repentance as a corrective.
He was saying, “Look, I can see that you guys love God, but you just aren’t quite getting this whole worship thing right. God doesn’t need your offering to be God. A statue or a plaque or even a temple really doesn’t do much for God. What really matters is that you stop trying to make God in your image, and you start worshiping God with your lives.”
The good news in all of this is that it’s not all up to us alone. The church in Cuba is not alone, even though their partners in the US have not been with them in recent years. The church in the US is not alone, even though we often feel divided and scattered. For we are a people who live after the resurrection of Jesus. We are a people who live after the Spirit of Truth was revealed. We are a people who know that we can appeal to God for a good conscience.
Let me unpack those bags a little bit, because it’s possible that I may have brought in some contraband. First off is this resurrection thing. That’s a pretty central claim to our faith, but for some it has become like the argument of a politician who tells us it’s true because he or she says that it is true. While there is some aspect of the resurrection of Jesus that we have to leave at “either you believe it or you don’t,” what’s really at stake here is not some metaphysical magic trick.
What’s at stake is God’s sovereignty. What’s at stake is our acceptance of the power and presence of God in our midst. Can there be a God who is both beyond our concept of reality and involved in our lives? Can healing and restoration happen at the hand of God, and can life have any meaning when it doesn’t? Yes! Absolutely! We see it all the time in the recovery from addiction, in the remission of cancer, and in the faith that comforts us when these struggles are lost.
That’s why the resurrection matters. It matters because sometimes words like “renewed” or “restored” just aren’t enough. It matters because we need to know that there is something we are moving toward that is more transformative than anything that we can do on our own.
And according to Jesus in his final words to his disciples, it matters because it was through his death and resurrection that his spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of God might be revealed to everyone as an Advocate – a comforter, an encourager, an intercessor on our behalf.
It’s not that God was never active before, but it is through the lens of the resurrection that we can see what God is moving us toward. And even though it’s nice to know where we are heading, we can all agree that there are times when we want the comfort and power of God to be with us here and now. We want a God that will help us, defend us, or at least make the pain or the injustice stop. And it is in those times that we must remember that Jesus promised not to leave us alone. We are not orphaned. ‘For we too are his offspring.’
I truly felt such a connection to God in Cuba. I felt God’s presence through our hosts, our group, and the witness and ministry of the Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada en Cuba – especially when I was separated from the group to preach in Union de Reyes – but I also had another, more immediate, experience over the weekend. Yesterday I was called by a minister in the presbytery because the adult child of a member of his congregation was in a car wreck and had been medevaced to Lafayette General.
When I arrived I was welcomed by the family and was received with joy in the way that Pastors often are in hospitals. As we visited and prayed, I asked for God’s presence to be known through healing and peace in that room. Just as I said these words the nurse was entering quietly and reverently. It occurred to me that he was the one offering healing and peace, and that God was very present indeed.
As I reflected on all these things it occurred to me that no matter how good and faithful I try to be, I cannot truly see God’s activity; I cannot truly defend my belief in a God of grace and mercy and love; I cannot reveal the love of God to anyone, unless I am also recognizing my need for a clear conscience.
I don’t mean that I am constantly feeling guilty or responsible for someone else’s sorrows. What I mean is that whether I am in Cuba or Lafayette General or First Presbyterian Church, the more I look for God’s activity in someone else the more likely someone else is to see it in me. The more often I seek God’s vision of things, the more likely I am to share it.
And that’s why we come together and confess our sins and the sinfulness of the world every Sunday. That’s why we spend the rest of the week demonstrating the love that world won’t see unless you and I show it to them. For in that way, each of us has a unique witness – even as we work together as a congregation to demonstrate love and acceptance, and yes, the active, restorative and redemptive Spirit of God in our midst!
May God continue to take us into hospitals and hotels, shelters and bars, coffee shops and kitchen tables where we might each in our own way experience the presence of God, even as we seek to share it. Amen.