Monday, May 19, 2014

The Uproar in El Garzal (Sermon)

Sermon preached at the Foursquare Church in El Garzal, Simití, Bolívar
November 25, 2013

Acts 17: 1-8
1st Thessalonians 3:9-13

I want to share with you all tonight about one of the earliest Christian communities… a community called Thessalonica. I want to share this word with you because when I read about Thessalonica in the Bible, I think of El Garzal… I think of all of you.

Could El Garzal be the Colombian Thessalonica?

The first time the community of Thessalonica is mentioned in the Bible is in the book of Acts, chapter 17. In many translations this 17th chapter of Acts is titled, “The Uproar in Thessalonica”[3], so I have entitled this sermon, “The Uproar in El Garzal”.

Let’s read Acts 17: 1-8:
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.’ Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’ The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this.

The Thessalonica story is so interesting! In fact, in the chapter just prior to the one we just read from, we are told that while Paul was in Troas in Asia he had a vision where a man from Macedonia appeared and said, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul understood this vision as a call from God to go and proclaim the good news in Macedonia. So Paul and his companions packed their bags and hopped on a boat from Troas to Philippi (where they had some problems and were even imprisoned) and on through Amphipolis and Apollonia before reaching Thessalonica.

Now Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia (in what is today Greece)… in other words it was part of the most powerful and important empire of the time… the Roman Empire. When Paul and his companions arrived to Thessalonica they must have been impressed with this city on the rise… full of foreigners and large Jewish colony.  Thessalonica’s development was due to the fact that it was an important Mediterranean port and also at the crossroads of two very important trade routes for the Roman Empire. Thessalonica is what we might call a “corridor”[4] for commerce.

Acts 17 tells us that Paul was in Thessalonica for quite some time. He preached at the temple several weeks in a row. And according to 1 Thessalonians 2:9 Paul and Silas were there long enough to need jobs: “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.“

And there in Thessalonica, Paul proclaimed the good news of Jesus of Nazareth… and as you all know the good news that Jesus proclaimed that day in Nazareth was:
-Good news to the poor
-Release to the captives
-Recovery of sight to the blind
-and to let the captives go free.[5]

And there in Thessalonica Paul preached that this same Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah the Jews were expecting to free them from the Roman Empire. And many believed and joined Paul; Jews, Greeks, men and women. Even distinguished women… such as the women of El Garzal.[6]

And this same Jesus of Nazareth is whom we proclaim today in El Garzal!

But it seems that this did not please some of the leaders of the Jewish community in Thessalonica, who organized a group of thugs to start an uproar. And an irate crowd went looking for Paul and Silas at Jason’s house where they were staying. And when they didn’t find Paul and Silas, they dragged poor Jason and others that were there before the authorities. And of what did they accuse them? Of being rebellious! In the Reina-Valera translation they are accused of unsettling/disordering the world. Some translations have them being accused of revolutionizing the world… and yet others have them turning the world upside-down. There is no doubt that Jesus’ gospel has a transforming power. And not just the power to transform individual lives, like that which transformed Saul into Paul… but also the power to transform entire communities… like Thessalonica and like El Garzal.

And then the text tells us that not only were they accused of being rebellious, but also of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” [Acts 17:7b] Now this is a very serious accusation! This has political implications… and we know that the Roman Empire often punished those found guilty of sedition, of rebelling against the emperor, with death. And though we don’t know for sure, and the Bible does not report on it, it is believed that Paul eventually died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Roman Empire about ten years later in Rome.

We do know that the danger of this uproar in Thessalonica caused Paul and Silas to decide to leave and continue their missionary journey. They didn’t want to further endanger the lives of Jesus’ new followers in Thessalonica… knowing that the cause of gospel liberation would bring enough challenges and risks for the community there. You see, in every time and place, those that truly live the values of the Kingdom of God are considered a threat by those who use their power - be it political power, economic power or military power – to exploit those with less power.

And when people from the US, who have heard of El Garzal, ask me about you, I have to tell them that you are still living in difficult times as well. That in El Garzal there are accusations, threats and that the leaders suffer from socio-political persecution.

I tell them that there are leaders in El Garzal who sometimes have to leave for a while to protect their own lives and those of the community. And that like Paul, they love their community and desire deeply to return.[7]

I tell them that you too are being persecuted by those who do not believe… those who do not believe in God’s justice… those who are yet trapped in the logic of accumulating property and wealth here on earth.

I tell them that there is still an uproar in El Garzal, that the Garzalans are turning Colombia upside-down. That where there is injustice you are fighting for justice. I tell them that there is a community in El Garzal that has understood that the gospel of Jesus Christ means being faithful to the values of God’s kingdom, just as Jesus proclaimed them in Nazareth. And that though the path is difficult, that the community in El Garzal has grown weary.

The Bible tells us that the community in Thessalonica also suffered persecution. And that when Paul left, he too was unsettled and he wanted to return very badly… but he couldn’t. Later Paul decided to send his friend Timothy to visit Thessalonica, to give them a word of encouragement in the midst of the persecution they were experiencing. Paul anxiously awaited news of how they were doing. Just as you all have friends in Bogotá and the United States who are anxiously awaiting my return to hear how you are doing.

When Timothy returns, he gives Paul a very positive report about the community in Thessalonica and this motivates Paul to write what we now know as the first letter to the Thessalonians. It is a beautiful letter, a personal letter, and a very pastoral letter. It’s also the oldest letter that we have from the apostle Paul… in fact it is considered the oldest part of the New Testament… written around the year 50 C.E.

I’d like to read you just a little portion of this letter… just five verses…

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 3: 9-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen.

These verses are like Paul’s prayer for the community at Thessalonica. And they have become my prayer for you. And such is the prayer of so many sisters and brothers in the faith in the U.S. and Canada, in Switzerland and India[8], and who knows how many other parts of the world who have heard of you. First we thank God for you, for the community of El Garzal… and we always ask God to allow us to visit. And then we ask God to make you to abound in your love for each other and for all. In other words we ask God to strengthen the ties of community in El Garzal, based on love… love that extends to everyone. Yes, the very love that causes us to pray for our enemies, knowing that one day they too will convert to God’s kingdom of justice. And we pray asking God to strengthen your hearts in holiness that you too may be blameless before our God.

Because it is firmness of heart, it is audacious, limitless love that makes Christian community possible… even when the powerful are opposed to the gospel message of God’s kingdom of justice.

Verse six says that Timothy brought Paul the “good news” of the Thessalonians “faith and love”. They, just like you, knew that faith and love go hand in hand. And that faith with love and love with faith in God’s justice will never be defeated.

For all of this is why we give thanks to God for the uproar in El Garzal… this is why we give thanks to God for these men and these women who are turning Colombia upside-down… this is why we too want to be part of building God’s kingdom in El Garzal… and this is why we will continue returning to El Garzal… and this is why we are convinced that God´s justice will prevail in El Garzal and across Colombia… that the violent will not have the final word… that with God’s help we will defeat this war without resorting to violence… that by the strength of your faith and love the violent will convert their swords in plowshares and that here in El Garzal you will sow in peace and you will reap justice.

This Thursday in the United States, your brothers and sisters there will celebrate Thanksgiving… a day that is connected to the autumn harvest, prior to the cold days of winter. It is a day to give thanks to God for all the blessings that you have received throughout the year. This Thursday I will drink hot chocolate and give thanks to God for this year’s cocoa bean harvest in El Garzal[9]… and for the blessing that you have been to me, to my colleagues and to Colombia.

In this spirit, I would like to close by reading you Paul’s words to the community in Thessalonica in 1st Thessalonians 1: 2-5:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.

So thank you community of El Garzal for being the Thessalonica of Colombia. Thank you for your faith, thank you for your resistance, thank you for your love. Stay strong! We are with you. God bless you.

[1] The “big” town across the Magdalena River.
[2] The pastor of the church.
[3] I don´t actually know how common this chapter title is in English translations, but the Spanish equivalent is in the most commonly used Spanish translation (the Reina-Valera). I took the English translation from the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible - NRSV (San Francisco: Harper Collins), 2005.
[4] Here I used the word “corredor” in Spanish which is a very clear reference to a drug-trafficking (and other contraband) route. El Garzal is in a drug (and gold)-trafficking corredor. In this set-up about Thessalonica, both the arrival by boat/water and being on a commerce/trafficking route would be fairly obvious parralels to El Garzal for the listeners.
[5] Luke 4:18
[6] A bit of context that you can’t see in the video, is that in this Foursquare church, they still segregate seating by gender. Men on one side of the sanctuary, women on the other. I had not planned on mentioning this about distinguished women in the text… but in the moment, it was an attempt to dignify/value the women of El Garzal.
[7] To the listeners this was a clear reference to Pastor Salvador who currently cannot live in the community due to death threats from paramilitaries. Pastor Salvador was in El Garzal that day for the first time in three-months, and had arrived wearing his state-provided bullet-proof vest.
[8] Switzerland and India were last minute ad-libs since there were accompaniers from those countries there at the church that night.
[9] Their most important crop.

Zacchaeus for Adults

Sermon preached November 3, 2013
Iglesia Presbiteriana Comunidad de Esperanza
Bogotá, Colombia

I don’t know if this is the same for you, but this story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus was one of the most common in my Sunday school classes when I was a kid… Zacchaeus’ was always featured in the children’s’ Bibles I got from my parents… I learned to sing a little song about Zacchaeus… and I don’t know how many times I colored a little drawing of Zacchaeus sitting in a tree with a smiling Jesus urging him to come down. In this way, my little friends and I identified with Zacchaeus… partly because he was little like us, and also because he liked to climb trees, one of our favorite pastimes.

And from a very young age, I, like many of you, could have explained this story. We all know it: Zacchaeus was short and had to climb a sycamore tree to be able to see Jesus who was passing through his town. When Jesus came to the sycamore tree he calls to Zacchaeus and tells him to come down because he needs to stay at his house. Zacchaeus happily comes down, receives Jesus and repents of his sins. And the story ends with Jesus announcing that Zacchaeus has been saved.

Seen in this way, this is a classic conversion story… with Zacchaeus the sinner, who repents of his sins, being forgiven by Jesus who declares his salvation.

But now, reading this story with adult eyes… and knowing more of the injustice of this world… I wonder if we’ve grasped the full significance of this story.
Could this story be deeper than the version we learned as children? And could there be applications to Colombia today?

At first glance, this story strikes me as strange. It does not develop the way I would have written it. If it were up to me, Jesus would show up with piercing eyes and tell Zacchaeus that his time was up, and he would soon be held to account. Jesus would publically condemn the exploitation and injustice of the Roman Empire. But the Jesus that runs the sellers out of the temple and accuses them of having turned it into a “den of robbers” - later in this very chapter - is not the Jesus we get here. No… Luke’s Christ frustrates me and challenges my expectations. And it’s important to note that the Gospel of Luke is one of the most severe in denouncing the exploitation of the poor. Just look at last week’s text… where the rich ruler is saddened after his encounter with Jesus as he is told he must sell all that he owns and distribute the money to the poor. Why didn’t the messiah say the same thing to Zacchaeus?

But this is not the only thing that seems strange to me about this story. If this is a story for adults as well, then what is a rich and powerful man doing up a tree anyways? Can you imagine Carlos Ardila Lule, Luis Carlos Sarmiento or Julio Mario Santo Domingo[1] climbing a tree on Seventh Avenue to see someone go by?

It just doesn’t make sense.

Could it be that Zacchaeus had other motives for climbing that sycamore tree?

The text tells us that Zacchaeus was not just rich, but also the chief tax collector. In other words, he was Jewish, but had sold out to the Roman invaders and accepted a position that entailed collecting taxes for the empire that oppressed the majority of the Judeans. The text also tells us that when they saw that Jesus would go to Zacchaeus’ house they began to grumble,

“Look… he’s going to that sinner’s house!”

It is likely that Zacchaeus was not very well liked, if not despised, by the majority of Jesus’ followers. Tax collectors had the power to not just collect taxes, but to do it by force. They could call on Roman soldiers to raid someone’s home if they suspected they weren’t paying the Empire all they were supposed to. The so-called Pax Romana was achieved through the sword. And the response of some Jews – known as the zealots - was armed resistance. And a small group of zealots known as the Sicarrii (where the Colombian word “sicario[2]” comes from) sought to rid Judea of the Romans and their lackeys by assassinating them with small daggers they could conceal in their clothes.

Could it be that not just his lack of height, but fear caused Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree?

And isn’t that what the rich and exploiters do today? Isn’t it common to see them with their bodyguards, in their mansions, ranches and armored vehicles[3]? Are these the sycamore trees of Colombia today?

And could it be that this is not just a story about Zacchaeus’ conversion? But the conversion of the entire community? A story of reconciliation and not just personal salvation?

Another clue that something more may be going on in this passage can be found in verse 8 when Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and will pay back four times any amount he has defrauded anyone. If this is a story of Zacchaeus’ conversion then it would be important for their to be a change in his attitude, a repentance for his sins.  Because of this, many Bible translations have verse 8 in the future tense. Zacchaeus says, “I will give…” or, “I will pay back”. But if we go to the Greek we find that the verbs are in the present tense. In other words, it appears that Zacchaeus is not so much saying that he will change, but is defending himself. He’s saying that he already gives half of his possessions to the poor and fairly repays anyone that he wrongs. And if that is the case, then he is a fair man. If it’s not the case, then he’s lying… either to save face with the Messiah or perhaps with the crowd who is listening. Ultimately it is impossible to know for sure which of these three scenarios is correct. The text here is ambiguous.

But what follows is not ambiguous!

Immediately following Zacchaeus’ statement, Jesus says (in verses 9 and 10): “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

And here Jesus breaks with our common understanding of the process of salvation… where we sometimes believe that it is necessary to repent before salvation happens… where God’s forgiveness comes after repentance. Note that this text does not mention forgiveness nor repentance. But the promise of salvation, and straight from the Messiah’s mouth, is proclaimed!

But salvation for whom? This is also very interesting! Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” The word that is translated as house comes from the Greek word “oikos”… which in its most literal sense is house, but can also imply family, nation or community. Another valid interpretation of verse 9 could be, “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, this family, and this community, because he too is a son of Abraham.”  In other words, this community is saved when all the children of Abraham are saved… including the oppressors. Salvation –as an act of pure grace- comes, according to Jesus, because Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. He is part of the community. This is an example of radical inclusion. You can’ t exclude him. You can’t make him into your scapegoat[4].


In February of this year in the town of Apartadó, the Colombian Presbyterian Church, at their 66th Synod, passed a public pastoral statement on the “Victims’ and Land Restitution Law[5]”. The statement says, “We reflected on the challenges presented by in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and on how to strengthen our pastoral mission of accompanying displaced persons and giving public testimony that allows us to be a church that shares the Gospel as hope and good news of peace. And the statement goes on to announce the Presbyterian Churchs intention to develop an accompaniment process with victims and in particular victims of land-theft and forced displacement[6].

I have had the honor of accompanying Pastor Sanmiguel[7] on trips to Catatumbo[8] and Pastor Diego Higuita[9] and others in the Urabá[10] region and I have witnessed the very important work that the Presbyterian Church is doing in these regions. I know that the Presbyterian Church is working for God’s reign in Colombia. And I know that your church leaders are deeply committed to peace and reconciliation.

But, the Zacchaeus story still unsettles me… it unsettles me when I think of the future of Colombia… when I think of the paramilitaries, the guerrilla, the drug-traffickers and the state military forces… it unsettles me when I think of the peace processes that are going on.

How many sycamore trees do we not have in Colombia? With oppressors hiding there in the branches? Hiding, but in need of a transforming encounter with Jesus? And yet, we’re all there in one way or another… either hiding up in the tree or below it grumbling about sinners and how much they’ve hurt us. I’m there… hoping Jesus will condemn when he’s clear that he came to save. I’m there wanting to blame others without “fessing up” to my share of the blame.

I relieve that today’s text invites us to remember and to affirm that we love the victims in Colombia, not because they are victims, but because they are daughters and sons of God. And that we also love the victimizers in Colombia, even as we repudiate their acts of violence and exploitation, because they too are sons and daughters of God.

We need to learn a radical new way of coexistence… the FARC[11] and the Colombian government are doing it in Havana.[12] Former paramilitaries and former guerrillas are doing it in the Bellavista Prison in Medellin.

Maybe you and I need to climb on up in our own sycamore tree… maybe we need to see Jesus. Or maybe we’ve been sitting up there too long… and we need to come down and restore community.

If what we want is a changed Colombia… a Colombia with justice and peace… we need everyone to be transformed: victimizers and victims, poor and rich, whites and blacks, men and women, heterosexuals and lgbt, adults and children, saints and sinners. We urgently need this conversion, especially those of us who have caused the worst ills in Colombia: the rich, the white, the men, the adults, the heterosexuals and the Saints.[13]

Thank you God for sending Jesus to show us true conversion… bringing the Zacchaeus’s down from the sycamores and saving all your people. We pray for the salvation and liberation of all victims… and victimizers, of Colombia… and of all peoples of the earth. Thy Kingdom come… May it be so.

[1]  Three of the richest and most powerful Colombians… the equivalent of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Donald Trump.
[2] “Sicario” is a common word in Colombia… the equivalent of hitman.
[3] All quite common in Colombia.
[4] A very veiled reference to René Girard, and mimetic theory.
[5] This is very important legislation in Colombia where the Colombian government recognizes millions of victims of the armed conflict and promises to pay them restitution (either in returning land that was stolen from them, when possible, or money).
[6] The equivalent of refugees, of which there are some 5 million in Colombia.
[7] Pastor of the church where I was preaching.
[8] A very conflicted area of Colombia (along the border with Venezuela) where lots of peasants have lost their land and/or are fighting to keep their land, where the Presbyterian Church of Colombia has started the process they mention in the public statement.
[9] Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia.
[10] Another very conflicted area of rural Colombia (along the border with Panama).
[11] Colombia’s largest guerrilla army.
[12] They are currently in peace talks.
[13] Adapted from a reflection on Luke 19:1-10 by Harold Segura.