Orestes Roca, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Matanzas, Cuba, was a guest in the Pullen pulpit on this Sunday. Orestes and six other members of his congregation are visiting Raleigh for two weeks in celebration of the 25 years of partnership between our two congregations. The text that inspired this sermon was Exodus 14:19-31.
Dear sisters and brothers, it is a tremendous pleasure for me and for the group from the First Baptist church of Matanzas to be here with you today, celebrating the 25th anniversary of our sister church relationship and the love between our congregations. It is a much anticipated event and one that we have prayed for. This gathering has been a miracle.
In 2011, Mahan Siler, one of the founders of this relationship, preached at the First Baptist Church of Matanzas and reminded us that in 1989, no one in our two congregations could have imagined that twenty years later we would have been celebrating an anniversary of this partnership.
“Would you have believed it?” Mahan said. “Of course not.” We could not have imagined that more than one hundred pilgrims would travel between our congregations, blessing each other through exchanges of love, of learning and of the shared desire to praise God and serve Jesus. All of this happened without the blessing of our governments. If anyone would have predicted these 25 years of friendship, you would have laughed at the unbelievable, outlandish and ridiculous possibility. In 1989 it would have been beyond our imagination. Mahan said:
It all began with a small seed. … The seed was planted through a conversation between Paco and Mary Ruth and Roger Crook, in the summer of 1988 during a conference in Sweden. We discovered something very surprising. Both congregations, the First Baptist Church of Matanzas and Pullen Memorial Baptist Church were being rejected by their conventions, and both were helping create new networks of like-minded Baptist congregations – the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba and the Alliance of Baptists in the States. We were amazed! Both congregations, coming from different contexts, were going through similar circumstances. Incredible! So, we stated the obvious, our congregations were already family, they just didn’t know it. We returned to our congregations announcing a new opportunity. We went before our respective congregations with that emotional feeling of having found a distant cousin that we didn’t know we had. Can you imagine! A church in Raleigh and a church in Matanzas! An enormous barrier came tumbling down and with those bricks we have built a bridge of collaboration.
The experience of having demolished a dividing wall is a similar experience, with obvious differences, to the experience of the Hebrew people at the Red Sea.
The story of the crossing of the Red Sea, a story that we have heard this morning, is one of the foundational stories of the Hebrew people and of our faith. The Jews tell this story every year around tables as they celebrate the Passover Seder. And the Christians, starting in ancient times, read this story every year while celebrating the vigil before Resurrection Sunday (Easter) and in some baptism services.
For many generations, the Hebrew people had been living as slaves in Egypt. When the cruelty of their oppressors increased, God heard the anguished cry and the hopelessness of the people and called Moses to take the people out of Egypt in a massive escape that is known as Exodus. When we reach the point in the story that we read this morning, the Hebrew people are trapped. The Egyptian army is chasing them and now, at the end of their escape route, they find themselves at the Red Sea, trapped, the Egyptians at their backs and the Red Sea in front of them. There is no way to cross it and they cannot return without being caught and punished.
I am certain, that many of us know what that feels like. Many of us have felt trapped, oppressed, enslaved by a situation or a person. We have tried to escape and we feel the persecution at our backs that tries to return us to the old situation. Suddenly there is a big obstacle in front of us, a challenge that is too big to face.
I think that has also been the experience of our two churches. Our two congregations have found themselves, at times in our history, in places where we cannot go back, where what we have seen before us is an impassable ocean, a violent sea that we cannot control or cross. I think that our congregations, and many of us, have felt that way—trapped between our past and our future. Behind us we have the forces that try to make us go back to the captivity of our past and before us we have a furious sea full of unknown dangers, with nowhere else to go.
Our two churches, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and the First Baptist Church of Matanzas, have encountered our Red Sea, screaming with fear and terror. And as a church, we have nurtured our voice of hope but we cannot quiet the voice of despair, because the voice of despair is also part of the story. It is precisely the voice of despair that made God say: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.” (Exodus 3:7-8). Our two churches, in the midst of our history, have also cried in despair. But God was there to reassure the Hebrew people, and to tell our congregations, that even though we are in front of that sea, a path can be opened to the other shore, to the promised land of the resurrection.
Often the danger in these situations is that we try to find our own solutions instead of looking for God’s action. For the Hebrew people there were only two options: surrender and go back to living and suffering as slaves or fight against the Egyptian army and at least die as martyrs for their freedom. The options that they had at their backs were devastating, but the sea in front of them was impossible. If they had turned back toward the Egyptian army, whether to fight or to surrender, surely they would not have seen the opening of the road through the sea.
The God that hears our cries of despair will act to save us. The text says: “The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground.” Our despair and our problems are very real and sometimes impossible to solve, but they are never more impossible than the sea that the Hebrew people faced or the angry and hateful torture that Jesus faced.
Sisters and brothers, in 1989 it was impossible to believe that the relationship between our two churches would last. We had both left oppressive systems looking for roads to freedom, but we had to face an enormous sea. A real sea—not the Red Sea, but the Straights of Florida—and a symbolic sea, the hostility between our governments that has lasted for years—the ban on free travel by the Cuban government on its citizens, the arbitrary denial of travel visas by the United States government, the possibility of being labeled as traitors of our respective nations because we love and want to befriend the alleged enemy, our isolation from other churches that saw us and continue to see us as bad Christians because we want to take the love of Jesus to the radical extreme.
But God has come to our aid; God has come to open a road through the sea of impossibilities and has allowed us to go through it. The challenge is to be able to wait and trust, to resist the impulse to take the quick and mediocre solution, and, because of our actions, lose sight of the water that is parting in front of us. God doesn’t push us toward the road that has been opened, God opens the road and asks us to follow. And just like those walls of raging water that were formed when the sea receded seemed just as frightening as the Egyptian army that was chasing the Hebrew people, the road that God opens for us will probably not be a pretty road; It won’t be a walk in the park, but it will be the road to salvation. This has been the road that God has opened for our churches, it has not been easy but it has been the road to salvation for both communities. God hears the voice of despair and God responds and comes to save us. Both congregations have crossed the Red Sea and have discovered the promised land in our relationship.
It has been 25 years since our churches decided to cross the sea, Today we celebrate that freedom and today, to paraphrase Nancy in the sermon that she preached in our church, I am convinced that because we crossed the sea, and thanks to our relationship, churches like the First Baptist Church of Matanzas and Pullen Memorial Baptist Church have something to offer the world. Not as progressive or liberal Christians but as people living with integrity and authenticity, people living the questions of their faith and seeking God’s justice for all. As long as we continue to cross that sea, our commitment and testimony for God’s justice will remain strong and we continue on that road full of kindness and peace. We should remember, that your congregation and ours, are not alone, that we walk this road together.
My sisters and brothers, with our relationship, God has opened a path to freedom and life. Blessed are those that put their trust in God and continue forward when God opens the way.