November 10, 2019
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Seven years ago, I traveled to El Salvador as the Presbyterian campus minister with a group of students from Davidson College during spring break. We spent part of the week at a rural community near the Lempa River called Nueva Esperanza, “New Hope.” On our first day there, we gathered in the open-air pavilion at the center of town, near the local parish church. Sharing a meal of pupusas and slaw, we listened to a Catholic nun named Sister Noémi and some of the townspeople tell their story.
When the civil war broke out in 1980, many rural villages were terrorized by paramilitary groups that roamed the countryside. Sister Noémi gathered the people who belonged to their rural parish, and they fled into exile in Honduras. They lived together for years as a small, tight-knit community, learning skills and trades with the intention that they would one day return to the homeland where they had farmed for generations. They worked and trained, married and had children, watched and waited for a day when the violence would stop.
Shortly after the war ended in 1992, Sister Noémi and her people applied for the right to return at their embassy. As part of the peace accords, they were entitled to return to their land and claim it again as their own. And so, the whole community boarded a plane, flew to San Salvador, and rode by bus to their remote village that had been destroyed in the war. After more than a decade in exile, they were finally returning home to rebuild.
Sister Noémi explained that the roads to their home were impassable, and so they got off the bus and began to walk to their land. As they made their way toward the village, a roadblock stood between them and the church at the center of town. Armed men, former soldiers from the war, had claimed the land in someone else’s name, probably a land speculator. They had come this far, into the wilderness that was their former home, only to be turned back at gunpoint.
Standing there in the hot sun, this small flock that had been through war and exile was at the point of losing their dream. Sister Noémi took the hands of the old women, some of the mothers and the children, and she stepped forward in front of the lowered rifles. Together they chanted “Ni un paso atrás! Ni un paso atrás!” “Not a step backwards! Not a step backwards!” The women began moving the barricades while the soldiers moved to the side. It was a miracle, an impossible barrier gave way to the nonviolent determination of ordinary farmers, people who had the courage to begin something new after years of warfare.
Perhaps what came next, however, was just as miraculous. The community stayed together, and they lived in that small church building as one family until they could restore one another’s homes and farms. With help from Catholic groups, foreign aid, nonprofits in the US, Europe, and Latin America, they began to rebuild their village house by house, barn by barn, schoolroom by schoolroom. When we visited in 2013, the village had come alive as Nueva Esperanza, “New Hope”: a clinic, a library, a school, a community center, homes for everyone.
The front of the church had been plain stucco, but now it was covered in a bright mural that told their story. Off to the side, as if falling off the edge of the wall, troops of soldiers shrouded in crimson and black clouds look over a barricade to a depiction of the town. On the other side, women weave blankets, while farmers carry bulging sacks of corn into a barn. Children learn their lessons outside a schoolroom under shade trees. A woman rejoices with hands outstretched in front of her home while a vision of St. Oscar Romero smiles down from heaven. A cross stands above the mural of blue skies and green valleys, the village known as New Hope.
For me, the story of Nueva Esperanza resonates with the words of the prophet Haggai from our reading this morning. The struggle, the fear, the determination, the long waiting, the grief and hope, the trust in God’s faithfulness, the courage for something new—these are all part of the story of Haggai’s people and their return from captivity.
Haggai preaches to the Jewish community living in Palestine after two generations of exile in Babylon. The new Persian king, Darius, had defeated the Babylonians and declared that the Jews may return home to rebuild the ruined city Jerusalem. And some of the exiles do return with a new governor and a new high priest. They have permission to construct a new Temple, the “house” Haggai talks about. The book of Haggai is a series of exhortations, sermons really, delivered between late August and mid-December in 520 BC, barely the length of a fall semester of college. Haggai exhorts the people not to lose hope, not to give up in their mission to restore the Temple and revive their homes.
We know from the different collected sermons that many returning exiles complained or despaired. The new Temple could never compare to the old Temple that the Babylonians destroyed two generations ago. Haggai admits that, no, it’s true, they cannot simply reconstruct the past. The past is gone, and they have to reconsider and reinterpret how God is at work in their own time.
But the experience of exile, of wilderness, has deepened and matured their relationship with God. They cannot simply go back to who they were before.
But for Haggai, whose name means “Pilgrim,” this is not a reason to despair, but rather an opportunity to take courage for something new. God calls them to rebuild, to trust that the God who had sustained them in the wilderness would also make good on this promise that our English translation says is “prosperity,” but in Hebrew is shalom. God promises to be with them, that God’s presence will inspire and strengthen them, that shalom, peace, flourishing, will be the end of their story.
Listen again to these excerpts from Haggai, unfamiliar names and all, as God speaks to a people living in the space between despair and hope:
“Now take courage, Zerubabbel, governor of Judah; take courage, High Priest Joshua; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD. Work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear (vv. 4-5)…. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give shalom (v. 9).”
I hear those words from 2,500 years ago, and I cannot help but also hear the rallying cry of Sister Noémi and her friends: “Ni un paso atrás! Ni un paso atrás!” “Not one step backwards! Not one step backwards!” The God who brings wandering peoples home and makes strangers into a beloved community says to us also, “Not a step backwards!” in the work of the Gospel. God wants us to work toward shalom, to be peacemakers, workers in the arduous task of mending broken and hurting places in our world.
As we heard in the New Testament reading from 1 Corinthians 3, the Apostle Paul takes up language resonant with Haggai’s words to say that we, too, are like a temple, that God dwells in our midst. Like a master builder, Paul laid the foundation, Jesus Christ, and we work to build a community that develops God’s promises of joy, and peace, and flourishing.
Gathering together a loving Christian community can happen even in the simple rhythms of the life of a campus ministry. Last Friday evening, a dozen undergrads or so from Princeton Presbyterians bunched together on couches in the Assembly Room down the hall to eat pizza and watch a movie. Our student leaders Thomas Hontz and Grace Matthews picked Morgan Neville’s award-winning documentary about Mister Rogers called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It’s a fascinating look at the life of Fred Rogers, the decades-long host of the PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
For me and many members of my generation, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is a familiar memory of my earliest days watching television. It’s so familiar that all the episodes sort of blur together into one vague memory of a nice man singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor…” while he calmly put on a cardigan, switched from dress shoes to sneakers, and sprinkled fish food into his aquarium.
Neville’s film, however, captures the astonishing, even revolutionary, kindness that Fred Rogers communicated through his lifelong dedication to championing the dignity of children. The theme of the neighborhood, a place where people live together and rely on one another, becomes a question, an invitation to how we should treat one another. “Won’t you be my neighbor?” For example, Mister Rogers’ neighborhood is a place where, in 1969, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the white host Fred Rogers could sit with his feet in the same kiddie pool as Officer Clemmons, a black cast member, on a hot summer day.
The two men subtly demonstrated to small children the absolute moral poverty of segregation and racism. In a kiddie pool, viewers saw the joy and happiness that could come from simply enjoying one another’s company as fellow human beings. In its context, simple kindness on a children’s show took on meaning as an act of profound moral vision.
It’s easy to dismiss that kindness and gentleness—the almost otherworldly goodness—of someone like Fred Rogers as alien, unfamiliar, impractical. I wonder, however, if Mister Rogers and his neighborhood demonstrated something else: tremendous courage. Courage to imagine that a vision of the world grounded in respect, dignity, and love could transform and even overcome the ways that, in every generation, we succumb to temptations of violence, division, and hatred. The show on PBS was for children, but it had something to say to everyone.
One of the last public appearances Fred Rogers made in his life was when he delivered the Commencement address at Dartmouth College in the summer of 2002. It had only been months after the September 11th attacks. It was a time full of grief, bewilderment, paralyzing fear, and, yes, sometimes even violent aggression toward Muslim and Middle Eastern citizens in the United States, neighbors who had nothing to do with terrorism. In his simple, patient way, Fred Rogers spoke to college graduates about a simple song he often sang on his television program called “It’s You I Like.” As his speech drew to a close, he said,
“It’s you I like. And what that ultimately means, of course, is you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say ‘It’s you I like,’ I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for things without which humankind cannot survive: love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.
So, in all that you do, in all of your life, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are.” [Pause]
“You don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.” If you walk around the back of Nassau Presbyterian Church, the side that faces Richardson Auditorium, you’ll find that those words hang on a banner for Princeton Presbyterians, the campus ministry Len and I serve as Chaplains. It’s something we often say to one another, and I believe it reflects its own kind of courage in a world often obsessed with ambition, achievement, even domination over others.
It’s easy to despair, to resign oneself to our common troubles and say, “that’s just the way the world is, it never changes.” No. In a world wounded by violence and cruelty, God invites us to become restorers of community. God calls us to find the strength to go forward—not one step backwards—to live our lives with courage for something new that is grounded in radical love and generosity. Like the people of Nueva Esperanza and the returned exiles from Babylon, God calls us now to simple acts that work toward shalom: “love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, justice that proves more powerful than greed.” As we walk in that way, God promises us in every age: “Take courage! My spirit abides among you, do not fear.” Amen.