Jeremiah 1:4-10; the Call of the Church, Delivered February 3, 2019

As you know, I visited Cuba just after Christmas. Learned a lot. I don’t mean for this sermon to be a travelogue, but I DO want to share with you, some of what I learned about religion in that country.
Some of what I learned was from our on-cruise professor. But I learned more from our personal tour guide. That’s right. Our group of eight, all related by either birth or marriage, had our own tour guide who showed us the sites of Havana. His name is Esteban. Esteban works for a private tour company. I hope you caught the word, private. In recent years, the Cuban government has allowed the establishment of some private enterprises—including tour companies. That’s something, don’t you think?
Esteban has excellent command of the English language. He used to be a government-employed tour guide. Working for the government, some information he couldn’t’ share, Two years ago, though, he was hired by a private tour company. No rules now on what he can tell and not tell. He said, “Ask me anything.” And we did. For instance, we asked what he knows about the outside world. He and his wife have a visa which allows them to travel to the US. And they have and plan to do so again—this summer. He told us about how he gets weekly book-legged copies of US TV shows, and news broadcasts. His favorite TV show is Game of Thrones!
But I diverge. Back to Cuba. As you know, for a long while Cuba’s communist authoritarian leader was Fidel Castro. When Fidel came to power he decided that the Roman Catholic Church—most of the country was Catholic—he decided the Catholic Church had to go. Fidel shuttered church doors. He declared that Cuba was an atheist country.
That’s not all that happened when Fidel came to power, though. As you know, he broke ties with the United States He accused our country of “Yankee imperialism.” Then Fidel sidled up to the Soviet Union. Our country established an embargo of the island country. And then our respective nations’ ties REALLY unraveled. The Soviet Union was happy to have Cuba as a friend, It infused Cuba with funds. Even with Soviet support, though, the country under Fidel became poorer, and still poorer. The Cuban’s situation turned from bad to devastating when in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. According to Esteban, the time after the Soviet Union’s collapse, is referred to as Cuba’s “Special Time.” That doesn’t even remotely describe the Cuban peoples’ misery. They starved. People lost weight, and were too weak to work-- they walked around like Cuban communist corpses. Fidel had to do something. He contacted the Catholic Church in Rome. Fidel asked, “If I open up relations between your church and my country, will you give us some money?”
A deal was struck, Cuba’s special time, it’s starving time, ended. Six years later, in 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba. It was the first time a pope had ever visited Cuba. He performed a mass in the open air at the famous Plaza de Revolucion in Havana. More than half a million ecstatic and grateful Cubans participated in that history-making service.
It turns out, those Cubans weren’t atheist at all. They were eager to reclaim their Catholic faith.
The country has been visited by the two subsequent popes. Pope Francis visited Cuba in 2015. The churches are open and back in business! Our small band of eight happened to catch a mass in process while we were in Havana. We don’t really wonder why Castro closed the churches do we? Fidel knew, as all authoritarian leaders know, if you can’t control the religious institutions in your realm (as did Hitler in Germany) you have to shut them down. The reason? Those church institutional leaders, leaders who claim their mandate from God after all, just might question and undermine their authority. Castro knew as Jesus knew, (although I hate to put those two names in the same sentence) –still they both knew: you can’t serve two masters.
And now I want to turn from talking about Cuba to talking some, about authoritarianism or tyranny in more general terms. Meet Timothy Snyder. He is an American author and historian specializing in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, including the horrible time of the Holocaust. His specialty is tyranny. I have read one of his books and this week I happened to catch Timothy Snyder on TV. In his book and on TV, he talks about how nations can become ripe for an authoritarian leader to take over. Mr. Snyder’s writings and lectures are in no way a defense of religion. As a religious person, myself, though, it’s easy to draw “defense of religion” conclusions from what Timothy Snyder has to say.
One of them we just mentioned. Authoritarian leaders demand their public’s full attention, respect, and cooperation. That’s why religious institutions have to be tamed, or taken over, crushed-- or pushed out. But there is more. Snyder says, “Post truth is pre-fascism.” Let me say that again. Post truth is pre-fascism. Authoritarian leaders will try to control all information coming into their realms. That way a fascist can tell lies and no one will know otherwise. If an authoritarian leader can’t control all the information coming in to his realm, at least he can hold suspect that outside information coming in. “Well, that’s only one VERSION of the truth.”
Again, “Post truth is pre-fascism.” That is also to say, an authoritarian ruler will try to confuse our true moral sensibilities. “Not all lies are bad; cheating isn’t always wrong.” And, “You don’t have to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The world is our enemy after all. Better to get them before they get you.” Once a population accepts that there is no real truth, but only our own subjective understandings of the truth; once a group of people accept the notion that there are no hard and fast moral rules for living, it’s easy for a fascist regime to take over. Snyder has still more to say, though. He says that in order to avoid letting an authoritarian dictator take over—which he believes can happen to any country—we must (quote) “practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair; fascist power wants your emotions dissipating on the screen (as in TV or computer screen)—that as opposed to face-to-face communication.”
Instead, then, says Snyder—“Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends…. “ When we interact with people who are different than we are, says Snyder, we gain new perspectives, we learn empathy, we learn to love others different than we are. Then it is difficult for an authoritarian leader to stoke fear and distrust of the other—(as did Hitler, stoking fear and distrust of the Jews)—as did Fidel Castro—(stoking fear and distrust of Americans, and of Cuban society’s wealthy Cubans). An authoritarian leader takes over by convincing a subset of people that he alone, is their protector from those others. You see the pattern? The formula? And now I want to turn to our scripture passage for today. Jeremiah receives a call. A call by God. God wants Jeremiah to warn the Jewish people that they must surrender to Babylonia. Otherwise they will be destroyed. Jeremiah’s call by God was a religious call, but it was also a political call. You see how religion and politics intersect?
As we know, the Jewish people did NOT listen to poor Jeremiah. And, as he predicted, the Jews were defeated. Those who didn’t die in combat, were sent into exile. (PAUSE) Friends, the church is called just as Jeremiah was called. I am using church here with a capital C. The church universal—Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox. We who are Christ’s followers may WANT to plant our soft bodies in our loungers and sofas; We may want to stare at our TV and computer screens. But WE are called-- to love God, to extend friendship and love to others, to nurture empathy in ourselves and to teach empathy to our children and grandchildren; to do our utmost to discern truth from falsehood; and to hold on tight to a rigorous morality. As with Jeremiah’s call, God’s call to the Church with a capital C, then, is both religious, and a political.
I want to end this sermon by bringing to your attention a mosaic, It’s in the United Nations Building in New York City. The mosaic’s image was based on a painting by the artist Norman Rockwell. The mosaic was given to the UN by the United States on the occasion of the UN’s fortieth anniversary. That was in 1985. Next year the UN will celebrate its 75th anniversary. The mosaic was presented to the UN by Nancy Reagan. The mosaic depicts people of different religions and ethnicities—Old, young, men, women, children, babies. One dark skinned woman is wearing a head covering and she’s holding a baby. One man wears a neck tie. ALL the faces are solemn Like these people have something to say to us of a serious nature. The words embedded in that mosaic are “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The people in the mosaic are standing together in solidarity, united by that all important universal faith statement, which is also a political statement. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s our common calling. Amen