Our Commitment to Justice Requires Letting Go of Fear

A sermon given on July 10, entitled 'Remembering Bartolomé de las Casas: Tireless Advocate for Justice.'

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am so blessed and so happy to be here. While this is only my second General Convention, I have to tell you that I feel like I have been a member of The Episcopal Church all of my life. My wife and I have received so much love from so many people all over the church. I just had to begin this sermon by telling all of you -- especially those who are particularly interested in church growth that my wife and I just became the proud parents of a "little boy" -- Albert is now five weeks old. We also have our little 17-month-old girl, Camila, and our 17-year-old son, Christian, who decided on his own he wanted to be confirmed by our bishop this past spring. Think about it, just with us at home, we have five more Episcopalians!

In the Gospel we just heard proclaimed, Jesus says, "Do not be afraid" -- "No tengan miedo..."
I want to begin this sermon by introducing you to "The Turtle Family": One day the Turtle family decided that they were going on a picnic, and because they were turtles, it took them about three months to figure out what park they were going to. Then father turtle announced it was time to leave and they took about 10 days to get to the park. Once they arrived, it took mother turtle about one week to spread the picnic cloth on the ground and place the basket on it. It took the Turtle family about a day to say grace before eating -- they really sped through their prayers. Eventually they were ready to take the first bite from their sandwiches when little boy turtle told everyone "Wait!" I forgot to bring the salt ... I have to go back home to get it. So they all waited one day, two days, three days -- until little girl turtle announced to the family," I am so hungry; I am going to take my first bite." The whole family insisted she wait for her brother, but there was no way. She just had to eat! So just as the little girl turtle was about to take that first bite, the little brother who has hiding nearby behind a tree said, "You see, that's why I didn't go get the salt, I was so afraid you would begin without me."

Fear paralyzes.

The 10th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew has always been very appealing to me. It begins by giving us the names of "the twelve" and then presents us with a number of instructions and peculiar warnings Jesus offers to the disciples as they are sent on their mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Yet, in this particular passage we just heard, three times in just a few verses we hear Jesus say: "Do not be afraid." If you pay close attention to the context of this chapter, one clearly sees that the disciples had every reason to be afraid. Jesus tells them they will be persecuted, rejected, even "flogged in the synagogues" -- yet he assures them they should not worry and he tells each of them it will be the Spirit of God who will "speak through you" (Matthew 10:20). The most important instruction and piece of advice Jesus gives his disciples is not to be afraid.

Fear paralyzes indeed. Speaking from personal experience, as one who was ideologically and somewhat spiritually paralyzed for some time, I can attest to the fact that fear is often our worst enemy. Fear does not allow us to see things with clarity and often makes us seek what is comfortable and what we have grown accustomed to culturally, avoiding doing the hard work of discovering the will of God, which is the only thing that brings us true freedom and lasting peace. I am convinced that fear is ultimately responsible for keeping us from doing the work of the Kingdom; that kingdom of justice, peace and love which Jesus challenges his disciples -- both then and now -- to proclaim and make real in this world.

In my own faith journey, not unlike a good number of the members of our church who have come from other communions, one of the things that attracted me most to The Episcopal Church and our Anglican way is this sense of belonging to a spiritual oasis where we can "agree to disagree," where there is room for ambiguity, where people can be heard, accepted and loved regardless of the popularity of their varied and diverse positions; a place free from the constant imposition of ideas and the rigid demands of dogmatism, which provide such little room for the use of reason and simply do not value our God given ability to make personal decisions regarding what God may or may not be asking of us as individuals and as a community of faith. Indeed our church is a spiritual oasis for many -- and must continue to be that unique place -- where the people of God and their leaders cannot be threatened by our rapidly changing world, but on the contrary, wish to embrace it with God's unconditional and beyond-all-boundaries type of love! "Do not be afraid," Jesus says.

Bartolome de las Casas is a great example of what it means to be radical in following the Gospel and in the balancing act between dealing with the status quo -- required of him due to his political and ecclesiastical position -- and being truly unafraid to live the fullness of the Gospel and work for justice, even when those he answered to were systematically oppressing the native peoples he defended. Those unique political abilities and capacity to negotiate with the powers that be led him to be known as "The Protector of the Indians." I believe these qualities would have made him a huge asset to our own General Conventions. Yet, like so many of us, God surprised Bartolome in calling him to ministry, since he originally came to America thinking he would just be another "conquistador." But God had other plans -- eventually he would become a priest and later a bishop that would offer his life in fighting against the grave injustices that Native Indians all over the Americas suffered.

As we look around our world today, in the United States and beyond, we sense the need for a renewed discipleship and commitment to justice -- contemporary voices that are willing put fear aside and "shout from the rooftops" that we must "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" (Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer). Our sermons, even our tweets and posts -- our daily work in church and especially in the larger community -- must clearly express that we are not afraid and that every form of prejudice, injustice, inequality and bigotry are not compatible with that Kingdom which Jesus expects us to help build. We have work to do and we cannot allow fear to paralyze us or keep us from moving forward.

When Bartolome de Las Casas arrived in the Americas, I guess he probably fell in love with Mexican food (which is my favorite), the volcanoes of Central America and the green palms in Cuba, my parents' homeland. But with the passage of time his true love, became the indigenous peoples -- the native Indians throughout the Americas; those same people that along with so many others, he came to "conquer."

The injustices he found had a profound impact on his life and those experiences led him to give his life to Jesus; becoming a priest of Christ and a spokesperson for those who had no voice before the colonial authorities.

In today's Gospel Jesus tells us "do not be afraid" and "shout it from the rooftops." As he told his first disciples, today the Lord Jesus says to us, "Do not be afraid." The challenge for all Christians today is not to fall into the temptation of always being liked by all -- that's impossible! To announce and to denounce is part of the prophetic work of Christ's Church. Some will be offended by us and others will follow, but proclaiming the message of the unconditional love of Jesus for all persons is our first duty as "church."

There is no doubt that Bartolome lived in times of great injustice. Surely it was easier to remain silent and be one of the bunch. Why bother with the consequences of denouncing injustice and fighting for the human rights of a group of people who he hardly knew? In addition, they had radically different cultures, races and religious traditions which had little connection with his own. They spoke diverse languages that I am sure he had to struggle to learn with great difficulty. Yet, Bartolome had a shepherd's heart, and those who have a shepherd's heart fight to protect and defend their sheep -- regardless of their diversity.

Today, you and I, as women and men, clergy and laity, are called to build the kingdom of Christ among us. Our commitment to justice in this society is an essential part of the fulfillment of the Gospel. A few days ago the president of our great nation said, "We are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation of immigrants." If this is so, why do we keep referring to human beings as "illegals"? For God, there are no illegals! You and I have to fight to ensure that in our nation we may support and enact laws which truly respect the dignity of every human being. We have to remove the fear and put on faith and courage in promoting justice in the midst of a society which although it has become very sophisticated in a variety of areas including technology and science, is still very poor in the recognition and treatment of the most vulnerable among us.

Way beyond the borders of the United States, we cannot be afraid to denounce the injustices of sisters and brothers in countries where there is still no freedom of expression, where hunger and poverty are extreme and where economic injustice and corruption are endless. I am thinking of so many places like Sudan, Haiti, Cuba -- and countless others -- where the Episcopal Church does such great work with a variety of partners.

Hearing these words of Jesus in today, I am convinced that we -- the church -- must "shout from the rooftops" the message of justice without fear: May family divisions caused by unjust deportations cease now. May there be an end to ongoing bigotry, discrimination and lack of understanding between people of different languages and races. May we stop the absurd fights to exclude and belittle those who disagree with us or see life differently, people who are often mistreated by our own ignorance. May you and I renew our efforts and "not be afraid" to do and accomplish what the Gospel of Christ demands of us in our times. So be it! Amen.