16 August 2015
Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58
Just seven weeks ago I left on an epic journey to the beautiful island of Cuba, where translators are theologians, and maids are intellectuals; where church choir members were also cooks and hosts for our delegation from the United States and Mexico.
In this country you might hear a young all female symphony featuring a self-taught violinist/composer prodigy, or a multi-racial mariachi band, or a combo of Haitian/Cuban singer dancer drummers, or a beaming choir of elderly people of every shade of skin color at a senior center, or a strolling singer/guitarist in old Havana, or even a chorus of youth chilling on the Malecon, breaking into impromtu song.
If you do come down with traveler’s diarrhea or vomiting, you can get an overnight stay in the hospital, including IV fluids, complete diagnostic tests, and no charges. At the ocean there is a feeling of tranquility as families play together in the surf of the well maintained all public beaches. There are no signs of huge wealth disparity or dire poverty. No segments of the population are invisible and people treat each other well. There is little crime.
Gerardo Hernández, one of the freed Cuban Five, says it like this: “When we talk about the achievements of the Revolution…hardly anything is ever mentioned about the tranquility of our everyday life, the safety that we enjoy here, the fact a child can be playing until dawn on a street corner near his home and nothing will happen to him.”
Here, housing, basic food needs, health care, and education are not worries for people, and are considered to be basic human rights.
In this magical country, in a town called Sancti Spiritus, families stroll through the park in the middle of town past midnight, while consecutive bands play for tourists and locals alike, with happy dancing in the street. Meanwhile, a little train-like cart for children, circles the park, pulled by a large goat.
Granted, this particular night I describe here was July 26th, the day for celebrating the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, a kind of New Year’s Day blow out.
On the evening before this day we had attended a neighborhood celebration, complete with food and dancing, of a CDR—a committee for the defense of the revolution. These committees are organized as neighborhoods where participants as young as 17 are part of local politics, address community needs and concerns, and send representative input up the political chain from the grass roots.
This reminded me somewhat of the neighborhood network we have in our church community, established for the purpose of collaborating, responding to needs, and building community connections and organizing capacity.
On the way to Cuba, we traveled in a school bus stopping in supportive communities along the way to educate, celebrate, collect material aid for Cuba and raise funds for the Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba. We stopped overnight in Sacramento, Oakland, Richmond, Santa Cruz, Fresno, LA, Tucson, El Paso, and San Antonio.
We experienced incredible hospitality and many types of co-housing communities along the way. Some included compact houses on a common block with a shared meeting space, play equipment, and gardens. Others included families sprinkled throughout a neighborhood, choosing intentional practices of shared community life over several years. One was a transitional housing program where several people who had been living on the street were provided with a large individual tent space, a garden plot, and access to a community home with kitchen and bathroom and a system of shared support and responsibility.
Some of us here might want to explore more cooperative living opportunities in our community by considering inviting a college student to occupy an empty room for low rent or in exchange for cleaning or other services.
We might want to sign up for the digital sharing network Marie has set up for us, whereby we can borrow or donate or request items through an email describing what might be needed or offered, from extra sheets to tools or trucks.
On our journey to Cuba, our last hosted community housing experience was in Mexico City where homeless people had squatted to claim a block of land, and then by collaboratively securing a building loan, had constructed a large, secure co-housing apartment complex with lots of open air common space, where people with very low incomes could afford to pay the mortgage on a small, fully equipped apartment, while participating in a sophisticated and evolving program of self governance and community maintenance.
Finally, we arrived in beautiful Cuba. In the Cuban experiment of socialism, the needs of the collective have been established as greater than the needs of the individual.
As US Cuban relations shift, many worry that Cuba’s uniqueness will be lost. But the wise Cuban people have effectively defended their revolution for 56 years and already have laws in place to manage the investments coming. Meanwhile, Pastors for Peace continues to travel to Cuba without a license in defiance of the economic blockade that is still in place and US funds continue to be allocated to undermine the Cuban government and support opposition groups. So regime change is still US policy until we help to change it.
Jose Marti was a poet, writer, educator, and founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, defending Cuba’s right to independence from Spain at the time he lived from 1853-1895. He could see already a new world coming where the contributions of many would be valued above the “traits of the privileged”.
He wrote: “Beauty has become the dominion of all. … Genius is moving from the individual to the collectivity. Man is losing out to men. (I am sure he meant the same for women.) The traits of the privileged are being diluted and expanded to the masses, which … will gladden those of generous and gallant heart who know that however grand a creature you may be on the earth, you are no more than a reflection of the Creator’s gaze and a golden sand that will return to the beautiful source of gold.”
This dream of a more egalitarian society may or may not have played out as Marti envisioned for his beloved Cuba, but the Cubans have kept the revolutionary dream alive as they have learned from their mistakes and found ways to offer their revolutionary hope and service to the rest of the world.
We visited ELAM, the Latin American School of Medicine. This school offers free medical education to students from around the world, including several from the US who come from low-income backgrounds and agree to return to underserved communities when they are finished. Cubans know that once students have lived the experience of this model of community-based, high quality medical care, eaten and drunk it so to speak, they will take it with them into the work they do throughout the world (as a little yeast that just might leaven the whole loaf). Whenever there are health crises or natural disasters throughout the world, Cuban doctors are the first to show up.
Jesus was concerned with the physical needs of the people who gathered to hear him. Feeding and healing were some of his main commitments. In this entire sixth chapter of the book of John, from which this morning’s second reading comes, the idea of the hungry being fed comes up again and again. We read about the feeding of the 5000, and there is a conversation about the manna, which fed the Israelites in the wilderness, and then the “bread of life discourse” develops.
Along with a world of “enough for everyone” distribution, Jesus was especially concerned with people’s hunger for transformed lives, lives connected to something beyond the immediate needs of the day, like the life he was modeling for them.
He recognized himself as bread and drink that God was providing to the world. He was there to feed, to heal, and to live himself, free from the usual restraints of the domination system in which he and all the people of his time were captive. He was revolutionary in his courage to give up the things that would have constrained him, for the sake of bringing God in the flesh to his moment in time.
As usual Jesus refers to himself as ho huios tou anthropos, the awkward Greek rendering which translates well into English as the Human One. He says the Human One, this revolutionary model he is incarnating, is the flesh and blood required for life, true food and true drink. He hammers this home in the words recorded here in John.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father (and Mother) sent me, and I live because of the Father (and Mother), so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
These were hard words to hear for the people at the time, and in fact the text goes on to say, that “many disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”: flesh and blood as a metaphor, albeit a messy one, and one Jesus, or at least those who collected his teachings in the book of John, thought worthy of driving home.
It is an invitation to us to wrestle with what it means to take God into our own flesh, and to give our own flesh to the needs of the world. What are the ways we connect our bodies to the struggle for justice, to the needs for food and health and housing?
My favorite theologian, Walter Wink says, “we are invited to live with the Human Being in the most mundane and secular way, to take it within ourselves, to digest it, to assimilate it into our beings…We become human as we ‘eat’ the Human Being who has become the ‘bread of life.’”
Wink proposes that “Jesus is not the Incarnate God, but a human being who incarnated God and who taught us how to do the same, through the working of the divine Spirit within us…we are asked to become ourselves aided by what Jesus revealed and by the genius of his life and teaching.”
We too can live revolutionary lives as we incarnate God and collaborate with the work of God in the world.
We realized this week another way in which one’s life can feed another as her flesh and blood is made available through the gift of organ donation.
Elise Lockhart’s beautiful daughter Erin, sustained a catastrophic brain aneurism on Monday afternoon at 2:15pm. She never breathed on her own again after that incident, but her body was kept oxygenated. The medical staff at the hospital consulted Elise and her other daughter Arden about the possibility of organ donation, and of course they knew Erin would want that. They soon realized her driver’s license confirmed her wish.
As Elise and others who loved Erin said their good byes, it was clear that her life would continue through the gifts of her flesh and blood that would be shared with people anxious for the new chance at life that she had prepared to provide. With the details in the hands of medical teams, by the mysteries of timing and loss and hope and good fortune for those waiting for her organs, her body has become a life-giving gift for many others.
Through Elise, Erin had made some important connections to this community of faith and she will be missed and remembered as beloved.
On his 89th birthday, which was also the eve of the re-opening of the US embassy this week in Havana, Fidel Castro wrote the following:
“As has been expressed with clarity by Cuba’s Party and government, to advance good will and peace among all the countries of this hemisphere and the many peoples who are part of the human family, and thus contribute to the survival of our species in the modest place the universe has conceded us, we will never stop struggling for peace and the well-being of all human beings, for every inhabitant on the planet regardless of skin color or national origin, and for the full right of all to hold a religious belief or not.
The equal right of all citizens to health, education, work, food, security, culture, science, and wellbeing, that is, the same rights we proclaimed when we began our struggle, in addition to those which emerge from our dreams of justice and equality for all inhabitants of our world, is what I wish for all. To those who share all or part of these same ideas, or superior ones along the same lines, I thank you, dear compatriots.”
Does it seem strange to you that the message from the communist party of Cuba sounds so much like a fleshed out vision of the bread of life? An invitation to revolution? Something maybe Jesus would say?
Aung San Soo Kyi said: Freedom must be demanded and defended, by those who have been denied it and by those who are already free.
We might keep thinking about who is who as we continue to work hand in hand with our Cuban brothers and sisters for the better world that is possible.
Hear these words from Dorothy Day: The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?