On the Western Slope of Colorado lies Glenwood Springs, a beautiful town just down the road from Rifle, where I grew up. Glenwood sits at the convergence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers which means that the town sits nestled in a valley and is protected on all sides by steep mountains made of the red clay that give the state and the river its name. Red Mountain towers over Glenwood. Its sheer cliffs rise nearly 2000 feet above the city and brightly colored hang-gliders and para-gliders are a frequent sight, looking so serene as they dart along Red Mountain’s cliff walls and back and forth across the valley until they land.
When our jeep arrived at the summit the wind was howling. We climbed out of the jeep, and as we peeked over the edge of the cliff we could see all the ant people, tiny toy cars and glistening river below us. It was only then that my brain and ears began to work in tandem. The words that the guide had spoken an hour earlier were now blaring, as if someone was holding a bullhorn next to my head: “Mr. Romero, by signing on this line you release us from all liability and acknowledge that you can lose your life by jumping off the mountain.”
The guide strapped on his backpack that held our parachute, then he yanked me into him and snapped the clips on my back into his chest harness. Under my helmet, my ears were ringing. Even though his mouth was just a few inches from my ear, I could barely hear what he was saying through the howling wind and the flood of adrenaline sloshing around brain. I heard the guide say, “Walk to the edge,” but my legs were cemented firmly in place. This is a common reaction. The guide, who was six inches taller and outweighed me by 50 pounds, simply picked me up and shuffled us to the rim. My heart had long since taken up permanent residence in the dry desert that was my throat. “We’re going on three!” he said. One, two…and suddenly we’re in freefall. They go on two because on three, everybody freaks out and it would be really bad if you tumble off the cliff instead of jump away from the cliff face.
Now in freefall and certain of my death, aspens and pine trees and river are coming up fast. A split second later…it’s quiet and peaceful. I was overcome by the most blissful feeling you can imagine. The fear was completely gone. Drifting back and forth across the beautiful valley, it felt as if I was cradled in God’s hand. At that point I asked myself why I had been so afraid just 8 seconds earlier. The actor Will Smith says that this is because God puts your most beautiful, satisfying and life-giving experiences on the other side of your fear and mistrust. But to get there you have to trust yourself and in God.
Last week we learned about process theology and today we look at our scripture through the lens of Liberation Theology. In this study, we interpret what the text is saying to us from the perspective of the poor and oppressed and the injustices they face. But we’re not simply seeking intellectual knowledge; this is a socially active and relational Gospel view. At the heart of this interpretation is a belief that deep individual and collective relationships with the poor enable us to connect more deeply with God. This immediately calls to mind our important partnerships with CES and Lexington Commons, and our LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter work. And, on deck, our growing involvement with poor and oppressed immigrants.
In today’s scripture, Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust God and trust me.” The backdrop of this story is that everyone had gathered during the Last Supper the night before the crucifixion. In the previous chapter, Jesus became aware that his hour had come to depart from this world. He had announced his betrayal just a few moments earlier and tension filled the air. Their friend, teacher, brother—their everything—was leaving them, and they were afraid.
What do you do when you lose everything and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it? You become desperate and fearful. You feel out of control and uprooted. You feel angry and depressed. If you have food, maybe you eat, but often times you can’t. You might try to sleep. This is a common coping mechanism for those in prison. If you can sleep even for a couple of hours that’s two fewer hours you aren’t conscious of the hopelessness and despair that surrounds you. The poor have higher rates of homelessness, suicide, self-injurious behavior, mental illness, addiction, unplanned pregnancy, hospitalization, malnutrition, incarceration, school dropouts and domestic violence. The poor have lower rates of literacy, graduation from every level of schooling, home ownership, employment, medical coverage, exercise, recreation, and overall happiness.
In the midst of their hopelessness, Jesus tells the gathered community, “I am the way, the truth and the life and no one [meaning none of them] comes to God except through me.” And in this way they begin to understand that there is a high price to pay in pursuit of their new faith. Their former ways must be rejected in full and they must trust him in full.
How many of you are familiar with a Trust Walk? Have you ever participated in one? This is a well-known method of beginning to establish trust between two people or between groups of people. And for this part of our worship I need a volunteer.
[EXPLANATION – a person will be blindfolded and I will lead them on a brief walk around the sanctuary].
Thank you, Francie, for trusting me. This exercise is harder for some than others and it becomes even harder between strangers. In this exercise the blindfolded person has to trust that the leader will not allow any harm to come to them and hopefully, by the end of the walk that trust is a little greater. The leader also has to have trust, in himself or herself, that they can handle any unpredicted situations that arise and can keep the person safe. This involves some thinking and planning ahead of time. Each of these is an example of investment of time and trust in the relationship.
Just last Thursday, someone or some group of people put up posters in the Lake of the Isles neighborhood. The posters showed a depiction of Jesus saying some very demeaning and vulgar things towards Jews and Muslims. The website on the bottom of the posters gave links to right-wing extremist hate groups. These were evil acts and we condemn them as bigoted, racist, heretical propaganda. The people who put up these posters are attempting to destroy trust between Christians, Jews and Muslims, which means that our seeking to develop trust with the poor and oppressed is often made harder. In this case it’s made harder by people. But often developing trust is made more difficult by the systems that the poor and oppressed must try to negotiate just to go about their daily lives.
Confronting systemic barriers to trust and equality—systemic injustice—requires a different approach in dealing with it than what most of us are used to. The gap between the powerful and the powerless in our society is widening. Systems of oppression go largely unchecked. Especially since last November.
I recently heard someone say that the United Church of Christ gets that the good news of the Gospel is about justice, but what they don’t get is that achieving justice requires power. That’s not a word that we hear very much in the context of spirituality. But it may surprise you to know that the word power and power concepts appear in the bible nearly three times more often than the word “mercy” and concepts of mercy.
In today’s text, the word “power” doesn’t appear. But still, the power of God is inherent. Verse 11: “Believe me when I say that I am in God and God is in me or at least believe in the miracles I have preformed.” Wow! That is a ton of power being wielded by God and Jesus. And verse 12: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” Doing requires power. And what Jesus had spent his time doing was healing, teaching, protecting and liberating the poor and oppressed and confronting systems of injustice. And now we are to do the same—but we need some power to make that happen. The power to deepen trust and revolutionize unjust systems comes from the relationships we develop with the poor and oppressed and with people who share our spiritual values. In organizing together in this way, we empower the poor and deepen our individual and collective connection to God.
An ad poster on one of the city buses I recently rode said, “At the heart of revolution and liberation lies relationships.” To put it another way, at the heart of the liberation of the poor and oppressed lies relationships. Systemic change requires political power. The poor simply don’t have that power. But, from relationships we develop with the poor and oppressed comes the power to do just as Jesus did. Not for them, but with them. God speaks to our doubts with a promise and in that promise we find our justice and our power on the other side of our fears.
We conclude as we began, with a prayer in this passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 1, verse 16: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, it is the power of God for everyone who believes.”