The Big Questions
The following sermon was preached by Elizabeth Bakalyar Friedman, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, October 28, 2010.
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
I met Josué when I moved into the barrio in Costa Rica. He was four years old then, a little guy with big smiles. He was small for his age because he’d had parasites as a baby. The dust from the two nearby factories gave him an allergic reaction in his eyes, so they were always red and itchy, but the doctor was trying to figure out a way to manage his symptoms. I had been told he was a troublemaker by another child’s mother; but I figured out quickly that it was her child who was usually the bossy instigator; Josué was a sweet, soft-spoken kid, with the insatiable questions and sometimes rambunctious personality of any normal four-year-old.
I had come to set up an after-school program in the community’s church. Josué would come and sit while his mother and I talked – she was the one who knew the community, knew who to hire to build the apartment and classroom on the second floor of the church. Josué’s mom would make sure I was getting fair prices at the hardware store. I would read to Josué and play with him. When I painted the wall that divided my apartment from the classroom, Josué wanted so badly to help, so I watched as he carefully dipped his paint brush and drew bright yellow strokes across the wall.
I lived in Josué’s community for over a year. He came every day to the after-school program, and his mom helped me out from time to time, even though she also had a six month-old daughter at home. Whenever the train passed by, only about thirty feet away from the church, Josué would run to the window and wave.
His mother insisted I come over for lunch every day because she said I was getting flaquita – way too thin. So I would walk down the rocky dirt road along the train tracks to her house. She was fortunate to have a house with cement floors, and the walls were a patchwork of sheet metal and corrugated tin. When it rained, it was loud, and the roof leaked in several places. Their home was a place of respite for me. Josué’s mother and I would talk and laugh, and she taught me to make homemade tortillas. I would sit on the floor or on a broken chair and eat her rice, beans, and eggs, and occasionally the tastiest guacamole I’d ever had. She wouldn’t let me pay her, but I would bring by fruit or chicken sometimes to help out. I got to know Josué’s family really well. I held the baby and told Josué’s mother about the children at the after-school program; some days they were driving me nuts; some days I couldn’t stop smiling. Josué’s mother would tell me how hard it was to be far away from her native Nicaragua; she missed the food and the culture, and she hated being discriminated against for her accent and indigenous looks. Often, we would share our mutual fears about the influence of the gang of older boys that ran around in the community; but mostly, they were high on pot, and yelled at passersby and laughed, rather than really being dangerous. We would shrug our shoulders and laugh, though we both knew the very real danger they posed to the younger kids who looked up to them.
When I moved back to the States, I made a point of going back to the barrio every year. Every year, I have watched these kids get older; every year, I have waited for the innocence of childhood to begin to slip away.
I was just back in the community during reading week. Josué’s mother is now the program’s director, and the program is no longer housed in the church. She helps our volunteers to get acquainted, and is there every day for the children. But her house still has tin walls; the roof still leaks; it’s a little smaller since last year; some of it fell into the creek behind it during a flood. The community is still very poor; the dust from the factories still fills the air; the road is still unpaved and rocky. The gang of boys that used to just be high on pot got involved with drug smugglers and now sells hard stuff – so now the little after-school program is trying not only to keep kids in school, but out of real trouble.
Josué is nine now, almost ten. He still hugs me, shyly looking up and telling me how things are going when I ask. He knows my husband lives in England, and he wanted to see pictures; so I brought my computer and showed him. It’s not the first time he’s seen pictures on my computer of far-away places, but this time he asked a new question:
“Eli, how did you get the money to go there?”
I knew the question would come someday. And of course, there was more behind the question than that. What Josué was really asking was, “Why do you have enough money to go there and be in those pretty buildings, and I live here?” I stalled a little, realizing that he was just beginning to awaken to the reality of injustice. The thing is, I do know why – but how do I tell a nine-year-old that hundreds of years of systemic oppression mean that his indigenous Nicaraguan family doesn’t have the same resources that my white North American family does? That there was a war before he was born that ripped apart his mother’s country, that my country funded the war, and that now Nicaragua is in such economic turmoil that it’s a blessing that he can be somewhere where he can go to school in relative peace? How do I tell a nine-year-old that when she was only a little girl, about his age, in fact, his mom was sent to Managua to work without pay in a wealthy home? That she escaped from an abusive husband and fled to Costa Rica with nothing? That when she and her new husband first bought land in this barrio, they had to sleep in shifts because they only had enough money to build three walls and a roof? How do I explain to a nine-year-old that if you have to start over with nothing, multiple times, you never get the chance to start over with something? So I said, “I got it the same way I got to come here and see you.” That made him smile, but I knew I wasn’t answering his question.
I too have asked these same questions for a long time. How does social justice come to be a reality? There is, of course, a fine line between being generous and becoming a benefactor, between sharing what I have and exerting power by giving and withholding resources. But this time, more than any other, I found myself asking: How does this poverty really go away? If I could whisk Josué’s family out of the barrio and into a better neighborhood, that would leave behind the multitude of other children living there who have an equal right to such an advantage. It wouldn’t solve the problem. It wouldn’t make the world any more just. And yet, because I love Josué and his family, I wish I could. But I cannot. I groan, too, with the barrio, with all of creation, wondering when God’s justice will be made a reality, when God will make of the earth a new creation.
These are the big questions. But sooner or later, or perhaps even now, Josué’s questions will get bigger. The prophet Jeremiah cried:
“Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us? We look for peace, but find no good; for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.”
The people of Israel were being punished for turning away from God, crying out in a time of drought. But Josué and his family, and all of the rest of the two-thirds world who suffer devastating poverty, are punished not for their own turning away from God, but for the idolatry of the rest of the world whose greed causes them to suffer. We still engage in military occupation, it’s true; but more often, we bring other countries low by ensuring their constant debt to us and propping up dictators who will be sympathetic to our wishes. According to Witness for Peace, for every dollar Nicaragua spends on health care, it spends five on debt service payments. And Josué’s family remains in exile in Costa Rica in part because there are no jobs in Nicaragua. It is because we in the rich countries worship money and power, instead of God, and actively ensure that poor countries like Nicaragua remain in debt to us, that the poor around the world cry out: “Do not spurn us, for your name's sake; remember and do not break your covenant with us.” It is because of our own iniquity that the people of God suffer, wondering why God seems to be like a stranger in the land, confused, unwilling or unable to give help.
Very soon, Josué will ask why he has been victimized by injustice, why it seems as though God has forgotten his community and him. And I can only hope that he will not capitulate to the pressures to live into that injustice, even though I couldn’t blame him if he did: from the gang, to take the easy way to money and the fast way to jail; from certain people in the community, who will wonder why he thinks he’s better than them, why he needs all that school; from his larger society, that sees him as a dirty Nicaraguan incapable of anything but laziness, theft, and violence. I will not fault Josué for wondering where God is, because his life consists of one monumental challenge after another.
But God’s hope breaks through even this. Even the people of Israel, suffering from drought, feeling abandoned by the God of the covenant, do not ever lapse into total despair; even when they lament, and ask God the big questions in pointed terms, they do not ever moan that God will never return. They continue to hope, just as the people in Josué’s community do, that one day God will return and redeem God’s people from their suffering. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that the things that would make themselves God – the gangs, the naysayers, the debt-collectors – cannot even bring the rain. It is only God who can do that – our very big God in whom we set our hope.
And here is our calling. Like Jeremiah, we are called to speak out against the injustices we see around us, the injustices in our own communities and worldwide. We are called, like Josué, to challenge the assumption that it is ok for some people to have much and some people to have nothing – to work in and through charity, but to move beyond it to social justice. The power of hope for a better world, the power of our own hope that God will redeem our world, that it will be one day renewed by God and brought into God’s reign of justice, compels us to cry out against those things we know are wrong. God uses God’s own created works – us – to shout from the rooftops the hope that says no to injustice and iniquity, and yes to God’s peace and justice. God’s hope breaks through in even the most seemingly hopeless situations because God is everywhere. God has not left the barrio, and God has not left our community, either. God is present in the women and men who fight to make it a safe place, who fight for their children to succeed in school, who fight for a better life. God is present in the religious leaders who fight for gun control and education reform, who work in their communities to ensure understanding and cooperation between different groups. God is present in you and me.
I can believe, contrary to all other evidence, that the barrio will change for the better. I can believe that at least some of the kids in that program will some day graduate high school, against all odds, and have better lives. I can believe that the shootings of children in Chicago will stop. I can believe that one day, we will have immigration reform. I can believe that third-world debts will one day be relieved. I believe that one day, we will be able to do all of this because as a society, one day we will truly recognize the image of God borne in the other, rather than demonizing and demoralizing everyone who seems a little different. I can only believe this, not because of blind optimism, but because of my hope in the God who is big enough to change the status quo. God’s hope breaks through the fog of despair, shining a light where all others have been snuffed out. Our unfailing, ever-present God, who works in and through all things, who makes the rain fall and the wind blow, is the one in whom we set our hope. God’s hope is in the presence of the big questions; our hope in God inspires those questions to be asked.
There is no easy answer to Josué’s question, and there is no faithful way to act as though it is unanswerable. But ultimately, it is hope in God’s ever-abiding faithfulness that sustains a community’s struggle for righteousness, the hope that God’s justice will be brought to bear, that the struggle is not in vain. Even when we do not have the answers, God, through our communities, and through our voices, makes us an instrument of God’s hope, so that God’s hope can break through worldly despair and injustice. It is that hope that sustains us and inspires us. Amen.