8th assembly/50th anniversary

Worship at the Eighth Assembly
Opening Worship Sermon
Rev. Eunice Santana

How wonderful and meaningful it is to listen to the words of the Gospel here in Mother Africa where they acquire a unique rhythm and flavour; in this our Mother Africa which is so easily forgotten and ignored by the mighty of this world according to their convenience, which is so unknown to many, exploited and stepped upon by others, but which is also so loved by God and by so many of us. In fact, it was in Africa, where the same Jesus who talks to us today about his mission, received asylum and protection over 2,000 years ago when he was just a baby. Here, today, we rejoice, our ears, spirit and intellect are stirred together - in unison - as we hear the words: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

This is a synthesis of the ministry of Jesus, who takes these inspired and inspiring words and translates them into efficient practice, concrete actions, which both stimulate and challenge us. These words reveal to us the will and purpose of God made visible, evident by the deeds of Christ, whom Paul presents to the Colossians as "the one who in his fleshly body through death has reconciled all things" and has made peace, as he reminds us to remain steadfast in the faith. Paul speaks of Jesus as the Christ, giving him the highest acknowledgement, the highest rank possible, as the representative of the invisible God. It was through Him at that time that God revealed Himself and related in a direct manner with humanity and all of creation. When we relate to Him, we relate to God; there is no division. When we know Him, when we receive Him, it is God whom we know and receive. In the same manner, when we stand for or against one of his brothers or sisters, we do it unto Him, as Matthew 25 indicates. In Him all things are connected, held together, make sense and are ordered.

This has tremendous implications for us today when we consider the deeds through which Jesus reveals and presents God to humanity. What we discover is that Jesus practised his actions which were life-giving and life-affirming. They produced and defended life and promoted life with dignity. Such practices confronts the systems which produce death. It brings forth life-producing events, even in the midst of a society full of injustice, such as the one in which he lived: a society in which exploitation, marginalization, oppression of all sorts, and poverty depicted the lives of the majority of the people.

Who among us doesn't remember the biblical story which show us Jesus doing good deeds, responding efficiently to the needs of other people, making the best use possible of the initiatives and opportunities that the people who followed him offered. Who among us has not celebrated his way of solving difficult situations, of healing , of enabling people to regain their sense of being and dignity, and of creating miracles? Miracles, not magical acts to call attention to himself, to be a show-off or to intimidate with his power. Time and time again, when we meet him, we find him immersed from top to bottom performing acts of compassion based on his mission. And those acts always went beyond the obvious, beyond the expected, providing experiences and profound lessons to all, even to us today.

Who among us can ever forget Jesus healing the woman who for 18 years suffered because her back was bent over ? (Luke 13: 10-17) Remember how that woman, taking advantage of the fact that no-one paid any attention to her because she was a woman and bent over, sneaked into the Temple which was forbidden to her, and placed herself where Jesus could see her? Words were unnecessary. Communication was immediately established between them. All of her body cried for healing. All of her screamed for wholeness. Her faith was obvious! In keeping with his mission, Jesus acted, and a miracle occurred - a miracle of enormous proportions and of great historical significance that goes beyond the healing, regaining the ability to stand up straight and praise God.

The Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible, speaking about this text, says that he called her to him, brought her to where he was. So we can conclude that he placed her in the centre of the Temple. There he touched her and healed her without making any reference to the word sin. And all this was done on the Sabbath. In the book Spiritual Guides for Today theologian, Annice Callahan says: "To speak to her in public was to leave aside the restrictions imposed on the freedom of women. To place her in the centre of the synagogue was to challenge the monopoly of the men over grace and access to God. To affirm that her illness was not divine punishment as a consequence of sin was to declare war against the whole system of domination. To touch her was to revoke the code of holiness with its male scruples of the impurity of women. To call her a Daughter of Abraham was to make her a full member of the covenant under equal conditions with the men before God. Furthermore, to heal her on the Sabbath was to free it so that it can be a jubilee of liberation and restoration."

The bent-over woman reminds us of so many men, women and children in our world who also have bent-over backs, deformed by illness, victims of Aids and other illnesses because of lack of medical care. Also because they have been forced into doing labour that slowly but surely cripples the whole body. They have been mistreated, are victims of violence and shame or humiliation. Even some of us who appear to stand up straight are bent over by the weight of exclusion, by the weight of colonialism, for example, and the threat to be made to disappear. Who among us doesn't recall that other story of Jesus?

It is clear that Jesus' mission was integral and integrated. At once it covered all of the things enumerated in Luke 4 including health, restoration into the community, liberation from all types of prisons and oppressions and crystal clear, firm proclamation that aims at transformation of the people and any unjust established order. His practice always included some profound lesson, some offering for the recovery of human blindness, to transform human relations and to reveal God's grace and love for all of humanity.

Who among us doesn't remember that other story that presents Jesus solving another situation of collective need - hunger? Remember? His disciples came to warn him that the people following him were hungry. Jesus told them to go ahead and feed them. The disciples thought that by this he meant that they should buy food for the crowd. They thought that money and spending were the only solution to problems. Instead Jesus performed a miracle making use of the five pieces of bread and two fish that a child, in a noble genuine act of generosity had given to the disciples to feed the hungry. To receive that child's gift was to uplift the value of giving, of solidarity, of small acts and of faith. But by his actions of then dividing the people into groups of fifty, he re-affirmed the importance of organizing to confront and resolve collective problems collectively. The miracle itself, I imagine, must have consisted of the capacity to convince people to pull out from their bags the fish and bread that they were saving for themselves and share it with one another.

Sometimes it takes more power to do that than to perform some other miracles. That is so because in his endless love God has provided plenty for all of humanity. The problem is that the wealth is poorly distributed and those who have it have also hidden it. All we need to do brothers and sisters is to deal with that. That lesson from the Gospel is good news for all of us. We can turn into good news for the people, practise of jubilee, announcing the favourable year of the Lord. Probably never before in history has it been so urgent that we begin to show our faith and Christian witness.

At the present time the lives of most of our people in most of our countries leave little to be desired. It can be no other way when the laws of the market and capital rule over the world takes precedence over the needs of people. The prevailing logic is to leave out on the fringes, and even eliminating those whom the powerful feel are of little or no use. Participation in the processes which affect people, the feeling that many have is that nobody cares what happens to them. How many people have had to leave their homes and everything they ever owned due to armed conflicts, the degradation of the environment, hunger, unemployment, only to find walls which are impossible to climb, closed doors, discrimination and negative attitudes towards them when they reach the other side. That is, for those who do not die or are killed while trying.

Millions have been displaced. Millions have been condemned to a life that's more a living death than life itself. Every day the wealth and the resources that belong to all of us are in fewer hands. Entire nations are subjected to programmes called structural adjustments. They are forced to engage in processes of privatization that lead to the elimination of essential services in the areas of health, education, jobs and the loss of land and other resources. Furthermore, huge amounts of money have to be sent away as payment to the unpayable, unjustifiable external debt.

Poverty grows everywhere at a rate of incredible proportions. Even people who had begun to enjoy some degree of well-being today are experiencing poverty. There are so many new communities that have been created around the areas where garbage is thrown and where many families live from the dirty and smelly, rotting waste of the more privileged members of society. And in many countries there is not even that and people starve. Approximately 60% of the world's population live at the level of poverty. Between 1,300 and 1,500 million human beings get less than one dollar a day. This represents such levels of poverty that hurt and even destroy the dignity of the people, the spirit of the human person. People of colour, women and children make up the majority of the poor worldwide and they are denied even their small basic rights, including the right to life. They are the poorest among the poor.

Today one of the worst and cruellest phenomenon is the mistreatment of children who are exploited, abused and made to be homeless. There are so many children out there living on their own in the streets - niņos y niņas de la calle - forced to work under inhuman conditions. Children who never have access to education, who have been denied the joy of childhood. How many children are right now being forced to participate, for example, in pornography, drug trafficking, child prostitution or are kidnapped so that their vital organs may be sold. As if this were not enough; we know that a "silent genocide" has been exposed which is none other than the annual death of 11 million children which could be prevented by small contributions of money which some rich countries refuse to give in spite of the fact that they know of the consequences, knowing that it represents the death of innocent children while millions of dollars are spent on junk food and luxuries.

According to the U.N. 37,000 transnational corporations control 75% of the world's production, manufactured products and services. These companies employ less than 5% of the world's work force. They produce and consume chemical substances which destroy the environment. They generate 50% of the emissions that cause the warming of the planet that endangers everyone.

Many countries have suffered the bitter effects of atmospheric events which have produced damages of enormous proportions. The fad now is to call these "Acts of God" in an attempt to evade human responsibility. However, we know how human activities are involved directly or indirectly and we ask ourselves why is that when certain things are discussed others are covered. When the effect of El Niņo is discussed nothing is said about nuclear waste or the warming effects of nuclear experiments on sea waters, for example, carried out in the Pacific since that is where the first signs of El Niņo can be observed. In all this, of course, the greatest damage falls upon the poorest sectors of society and the poorest countries because they have been made to be more vulnerable, at greater risk. None of this is God's doing for God is merciful and so tells us the Gospel. It is the result of our actions, of human actions. In many places people have the impression that they are being punished for something. Volcanoes that never erupted, all of a sudden are violent. Hurricanes even begin to act in abnormal ways just sitting in certain places. Recently Honduras and Nicaragua, for example, were devastated by a hurricane. Over 11,000 people have died and the infrastructure of Honduras was destroyed, the agriculture wiped out, and other means of production were severely damaged. In Africa and in other parts of the world similar things occurred.

It is as if there were some secret plans to deprive people of their basic rights, their freedom, to keep them dependent under the yoke of colonialism and in debt when in fact the debt has even been paid in blood. All of a sudden there are very good accounting records, but what about all those centuries when no accounting was available, when so much was paid. It is as if there was a plan to keep us impoverished, to destroy us, to make us disappear, to erase us from the face of the earth. Under such conditions it is difficult to keep on going, to keep the faith which, as Jesus showed us, is active and transforming - not wishful thinking - it brings about change. Yet people do not give up. People reread the Gospel and against all odds they reveal an extraordinary capacity to organize themselves to resist falling into hopelessness, to continue believing that liberation and healing, the release from oppression and captivity, the proclamation of the jubilee is also for them. Children, women and whole communities organize themselves for both personal and collective protection of life and all of creation. The majority of these want the accompaniment of their churches, and even of the WCC, and some are being accompanied, but they do not sit to wait for us. The road may be rougher when travelled alone, but travel they must. Globalizing solidarity which includes accountability for one another has become the aim of millions of people in different parts of the world. People refuse to accept the myth that we have reached the end of history and are determined like the bent-over woman to reject the historical plot that others want to impose on them and decide to rewrite history. In my understanding they follow Jesus' example because where it says captivity, oppression, prison walls, they write liberation. Where it says discrimination and marginalization, they open the doors of their homes, churches and countries and the doors of their hearts. Where poverty and impoverishing practices exist, they put together what they have and share it while challenging the bad distribution of their belongings.

Where the script demands payment of a debt that is not of their doing and that cannot possibly be paid, they write jubilee and justice. Where it speaks of hopelessness they invite in hope through alternative projects and proposals.

In many ways they remind us of life in the days of Jesus. When many thought that the end had come everything was just beginning, in a different way, because God's love for humanity is so great. God continues to hear the cry of the people and to accompany them in their journey in spite of our intolerance and the mess we have made!

Our mission as churches and as a fellowship of churches points to that integrated, wholistic approach and actions towards all that surrounds us, without ignoring any of the aspects included in the Gospel reading which Jesus articulated in a concrete, historical practice. A constant search and practice of unity; a journey towards unity and solidarity; of facilitating organizing efforts; of repentance, reconciliation and restoration of the people; of pooling and sharing resources; of being channels for healing, for bringing in to the community those persons who are being excluded; of release and of a firm and clear proclamation capable of producing change - upsetting the world - and wiping out injustice seems to define the scope of our ministry which is a continuation of Jesus' ministry.

May the love of the God of history who became flesh and cohabitated with us, the grace of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit illuminate us, move us, in fact push us and fill us with joy as we assume as receiving anew the challenges that the Gospel puts before us in this awesome historical moment.


Rev. Eunice Santana

Rev. Eunice Santana is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Chirst) in Puerto Rico. At the time of the assembly she was one of seven presidents of the World Council of Churches

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