Taking Risks


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

November 15, 2020

Texts: Joshua 2:1–22; Matthew 25:14–30

       The mountains lay beneath our plane as we began the descent into Comolapa Airport. You could see the small mountain roads circling the edges of the valleys below. What's always been amazing to me is not that an airplane can take off; that I understand. What's always amazing to me is that it lands without killing all on board. Our group had booked the flight on Continental, which we chose over the cheaper national airline of Salvador, known as TACA, Transporte Aereos de Continente Americano, or as more familiarly known by English-speaking development workers, Take a Chance Airways. 

      International visits, especially in the first year following the peace accords signed January 16, 1992, between the ARENA government at that time and the rebel forces known as the FMLN, now a political party were highly scripted, but at the same time you really never knew what to expect––as I soon found out. 

      The roads from the airport into San Salvador were lined with small pupuserias, roadside stands selling the national dish, a tortilla stuffed with cheese, beans, sometimes pork. The first thing that struck me was how much the pupusas were than the ones you get here in the States. “Don't eat the curtida,” a kind of relish often served with pupusas, our guide warned, “Your stomachs won't take it.” We were told not to eat unpeeled fruits or vegetables and to drink only bottled water or in small plastic bags, a normal way to sell potable water on the street.

     This was the week that the UN Truth Commission Report was to issue its preliminary findings, sure to touch raw nerves in a country that had only had peace for a little over a year. It was timed with what has become Salvador's alternate national day of commemoration––holiday would not be the word we use––March 24, the day of the assassination of Monseñor Romero. 

     In countries such as El Salvador, one marks the day of martyrdom not the date of birth like we do in the United States. It would also be the first year that a procession would walk from the small Church of Divine Providence, where Romero was murdered as he held up the cup of communion, down to the Plaza Barrios, a huge park in front of the National Cathedral, where the Army had gunned down mourners during Romero's funeral. It was exhilarating and exciting to be there at that time. It was a trip that changed my life.

      Tomorrow is another date that those of us who work with the Salvadoran community commemorate: the martyrdom of the six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter at La UCA, the University of Central America in San Salvador. Why, after now thirty-one years, do we even think about this? Because we are still experiencing the consequences of our policies in Central America here in the United States. 

      The 1980s were a battleground in Central America, engulfing not just Salvador, but Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and parts of Mexico. Ronald Reagan believed that this was the Cold War in our backyard and he supported the Contras against the new Sandinista government and corrupt governments of other Central American countries that thought nothing of massacring entire villages of so-called suspected leftists. As a result, we had a massive influx of refugees fleeing their governments. 

      In El Salvador that week I met people who had taken enormous risks, some just to save their own families. In May 1980, the Army and a paramilitary force called ORDEN had attacked Arcatao and Las Aradas, two communities in Chalatenango, which borders Honduras. As villagers fled trying to cross into Honduras, they were faced with attacks from the Honduran Army as well, which we were also supporting. Over 300 people died. 

      Los Amates, the small village where I stayed in Chalate, as the area is called by Salvadorans, had only 30 survivors in 1993 from its prewar level of almost 300. It now has over 100. During the civil war, the Army, so obviously anti-communist and, one would think, pro-Christian, came into the small Catholic church, desecrated it with urine and feces, smeared the crucifix with blood, and shot holes into the walls. These were the people our tax money went to support. 

      Women and children have always borne the brunt of war. But over the past century, a new kind of war emerged, one that deliberately targets civilians, primarily women and children. But in the midst of all the horror of rape camps in Bosnia, amputations in Sierra Leone, massive rape and murder in Liberia, torture in Colombia and Salvador, and genocide in Rwanda and Guatemala, women, called the weaker sex by misogynist theologians––just remember––Eve was framed––women have risen to the challenge to create peace. 

      The civil war in Liberia is a good example. A woman named Leymah Gbowee began a peacebuilding process that forced an end to the Liberian civil war. She began by organizing her church and added other churches as well as Muslim women to her group, and and convinced them to take the Lysistrata pledge. For those of you who are not up on your Greek plays, Lysistrata was written by Aristophanes about the Athenian and Spartan women who wanted an end to war so they withheld sex from their husbands; well, the war came to an end. 

      Then the group of women took an even bigger risk. They went to Accra, Ghana, and surrounded the building where the parties were negotiating and barricaded them in until they reached an accord. They could have been killed while in Liberia; many of them were women who had been raped, seen their children raped and murdered in front of their eyes. What did they have to lose? They took risks like the servant with the five talents. 

      The displaced women of Colombia, Afghan women who face threats daily, Congolese women who are caught in the midst of Africa's longest and most deadly war, and women from many other countries daily take risks for peace. Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist was forced to leave after the Houthi rebels captured Sannah but she still takes risks in her nonviolent struggle for justice there. These risks that are taken daily for peace by women and men, are investments in building a new world that could come for all of us.       Rather than burying their talents, they have used them. 

     Risk-takers are not all Jesuits, priests, and nuns. They are people like you and me, people who are often afraid, people who are flawed, sometimes those pushed off to the side by their societies. Take Rahab, featured in our first reading this morning. Tradition has it that she hid Joshua's men because, as the text says, “I know that the Lord has given you the land.” Although we generally don't think of the text in this way, it certainly implies that she knew who the Lord worshiped by the Israelites who had taken their chances with Moses, wandered in the wilderness for a long time, and were now finally ready to enter Canaan was. 

     She took a risk for, to be sure, had her city known what she had done, they would have killed her––and her family. A prostitute, she is mentioned one more time in Scripture as part of the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew. Although none of us here fall into her professional category, risks are taken by persons just as flawed. 

     What does it mean to take a risk? Sometimes our very common activities become risks; we could even say they are investments in the future. Churches are often called to take risk. Someone quipped the reason churches invested boards of trustees to worry more about the possible outcome on property rather than the directive of Jesus. 

      But, be that as it may, as a congregation, we are called to take risks every day. Sometimes the risks are little; sometimes they are more substantial. The question is how we respond to the challenge. We are indeed fortunate that none of us in this room have had to face risks beyond our ability to endure; we haven't been tortured, silenced, or seen our children killed. But this past Wednesday was a day we remembered the risks that others have taken for us. Men and women have died so our own risk-taking would be minimal. Those sacrifices require that we take the issue of risk-taking seriously. 

      With my group I went to the garden at La UCA where the Jesuits were murdered and saw the room where the two women were killed as well. The women just happened to be there that night because they were afraid of the gunfire in the city. The Jesuits, Romero, the four American churchwomen are just a few of the people who died who are publicly commemorated.  There were so many more in Salvador.

      There are also so many more risk-takers in this and other countries who do not bury their talents but are willing to risk all for peace, and justice to make this world more livable for you and me. Elba's husband who tends the garden gave us each a rose as we left. I wondered, what do you think at the moment of your death? I prayed that I would not flinch from taking such risks. I still pray that I will not flinch.

      Let us pray: Loving Sustainer of our lives, be with us as we consider the risks we must take to  build your realm of peace and justice and help us to prayerfully consider what risks we are required to make so this church can be a reflection of your love for all. In the name of him who risked all, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.