Finding shade under the tree

Living in Honduras for the past few months has felt especially difficult and intense. What started as a labor dispute between teachers’ and doctors’ unions and the government has become a multi-sector agitation against government corruption and economic desperation.

Classrooms from elementary to university have been closed at various times, and public hospitals have not been attending patients. Taxi and bus drivers have been occasionally involved in blocking streets and shutting down cities. University students, some of whom graduated in early June with little hope for finding jobs, have marched. Military police have shot at student protests. Commercial trucks have parked outside cities, refusing to enter, and some trucks have been burned during protests. The U.S. Embassy was vandalized and has been partially closed.

A tree at the center of a village built in partnership with Presbyterians near Trinidad de Copan, Honduras.

It is difficult for me to see God in this environment. If God is in the rule of law, there is little of that. If God is in social and economic justice, there is even less. If God is in peace, compromise and goodwill, there is almost none.

Some days I have had to look very closely for the smallest sign of God’s presence. Mark’s gospel gives me an image that I can hold onto: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (4:30-32). What can I take from this seemingly simple image? The kingdom of God is very small. It is planted in earthly soil. It doesn’t necessarily put an end to the burning, life-threatening sun scorching the earth. But it does provide shade, a sanctuary, open for all.

I recently accompanied a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which is completing a General Assembly directive to write a comprehensive study of Central America. In Honduras, we visited a government reception center for migrants deported from North America, heard from individuals and families directly affected by the push and pull factors of the immigration process, and interviewed international officials and organizations working in anti-corruption and social justice.We heard from Joana, a Scalabrinian nun, an immigrant from Brazil herself, who serves migrants at the Honduras government center, which receives up to 10,000 deportees weekly from the United States and Mexico. She and her team of volunteers were once up for four days straight receiving flights of 250 passengers each that arrived at all hours of day and night. Her message as 150 young men and women disembarked wearing U.S. Customs Enforcement-issued gray sweats and white T-shirts, their possessions in garbage bags? “God loves you. I love you. You are worthy of love.” And she gave them coffee, a little food, and a smile.

We witnessed the secondary trauma of a Mennonite social services agency worker who had accompanied October’s much-publicized caravan of migrants through Mexico to the U.S. border. She had walked alongside mothers with babies and people with amputated legs, trying to find them strollers or wheelchairs to replace the ones that had fallen apart after days of constant use. She had tried to provide a little solace for families, making ad-hoc playgrounds for kids while parents looked for a phone, or water, or transportation. She shared a picture of a five year old taking a broom to sweep the dust off the tarp on the ground where her siblings were sleeping while their mother was taking care of errands and gathering food. “The first loss is dignity,” Yanina Romero said.

As I wrote this, my friend and colleague, a Honduras church leader and theological student, was in Mexico. He left Honduras in March, looking for work because low coffee prices left his farm in debt he can’t pay. He was away from his wife’s side for the first time in their marriage. Traveling with a guide he trusted but who was extorting his family for more money for “safe passage” to the United States, my friend was in what seemed to me a hopeless situation. Each day he weighed the risks and rewards of continuing his attempt or returning home. “God is with us, God is here, sister Dori,” he told me on the phone. “I have my Bible with me. The word of God is here among us, and I’m able to share it with lots of people here with me. I have faith.”

A couple of weeks later, my friend’s wife called me with “the best news ever.” Her husband was on his way home. For him, crossing the border was a failed attempt, a financial loss. For her, success was the reunification of her family. “Pray for a job for him,” she said.

The kingdom of God is so much more complex than we imagine. In a bleak and hopeless landscape, we find little spots of light. Amid oppression and desperation, we find the hope cultivated by family connection. We find dignity — shady spots for our nests — under the tree of God’s presence in our created world.

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The colt returns: El potro regresa

A reflection on Mark 11:1-11, on Palm Sunday, for San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Lenten devotionals series. Leerlo en español después de la pausa..

I don’t know what Hosanna means. They said it was a blessing, as I was chosen from obscurity. I don’t know what blessing means. Hosanna, we are saved! The crowd shouted, waved, clamored. I couldn’t see him, of course, really just his hem and feet if I looked back. I curled my long ears back, straining to hear, to know something of this burden I bore. He didn’t say anything then, or if he did, I couldn’t hear for the Hosanna. I heard he had said, come, follow me. I heard he said, blessed are the poor, the obscure, the persecuted. I don’t know what persecuted means.

His followers, the ones to whom I owe this great supposed honor, told me then that I would be returned. That all would be returned. That the kingdom would return. I don’t know what kingdom means. I know that my hooves slipped on the palms and mantles that lined the streets. I did my best not to stumble, to bear up under the unfamiliar weight. He clutched my mane, digging in his fingers, and gripped my sides with his heels. That helped.

After the parade, I was indeed returned. Instead of a man, the next day, I carried firewood, and the day after, a hundred flat loaves of bread. I know what burden means, now. I heard later that the man said, “Remember me.” I was returned to normal, but not normal, and I don’t know how to remember. The tether chafes, now that I know the feeling of his heels, his hands. Which is the blessing? I smelled the iron, the blood, the smoke – heard the clamor and crowds, farther away. Whenever I hear the rustle of a palm, now, I also strain for his voice. Though I never actually heard it, I listen, through the clamor, trying to remember.

Continue reading “The colt returns: El potro regresa”

The kin-dom comes near

Adapted from a sermon preached at First United Methodist and Centenary United Methodist churches Jan. 21, 2018.

Mark 1:14-20: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

We come to this scripture so soon after we have celebrated Jesus’ birth, epiphany, baptism. Here we inaugurate Jesus’ ministry. In this earliest-written gospel, we hear—words put in Jesus’ own mouth—the reason for his being here.

The reign of God has come near. This is the good news, the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near.

I always like to put myself in the first-century hearer’s shoes. This gospel was probably first oral stories about Jesus, and was put in writing around 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death, right around the time of Jewish revolt against Roman rule in Judea, which resulted in Rome putting down the revolt by destroying the temple and turning the Jewish people into a diaspora—a people scattered over the earth.

When a Jewish person in first-century Judea heard that “the time is fulfilled,” this is absolutely not what they were hoping for.

They were hoping for a change—a permanent change. They were hoping for freedom and self-rule. They were hoping for so much more than crucifixion and death, and the destruction of their way of life, of their entire religion.

It’s even harder for us to hear this story, these words of Jesus: The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near. We know even more history than a first-century Jewish person. We’re sitting here, two thousand years later, looking around our world that has suffered from dozens of other man-made empires, global wars, weapons of mass destruction, famine, economies built on slavery. I’m wondering where this kingdom of God is. What has changed? What has really changed?

And the answer is, honestly, not much. Empire exists, oppression exists, injustice exists and persists, and persists.

Honestly, I have a feeling that today, one year after the first Women’s March on Washington, one year after President Trump’s inauguration, nine years after President Obama’s inauguration, seventeen years after President Bush’s first inauguration…we might have an OK idea how a first-century Jewish person in Judea might have felt.

Last month a president was inaugurated in Honduras. He is the first elected president since a military coup in 2009, and executive power in that country has bounced between leftists, right-wingers, and the military dozens of times in the past century.

So, the time is fulfilled! A new era has begun! And?

What has really changed?

It’s pretty hard to look around at our modern-day saviors, leaders, revolutionaries, and feel much more than futility and hopelessness.

I got a taste of this sense of futility the first time I visited Honduras, last November. It was one week before their presidential election. Honduras has been spiraling into desperate straits over the past couple of decades. Corruption in the government is at an all-time high. Gang-related crime and violence has given way to organized crime, drug trafficking, and world-leading murder rates.

This country is one that needs a big time change. There were two leading candidates in the election: the incumbent and the challenger. I was curious when I visited Honduras and met my new colleagues where their hope would lie.

The answer I got was not terribly awe-inspiring. “No matter who is elected, nothing will change.”

I had to look very closely to find a sense of hope among my new colleagues in ministry in the Presbyterian Church of Honduras.

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Reinaldo, a Presbyterian church leader in Honduras

Reinaldo is a 65-year-old man, a farm worker. For the past year, he has been participating in a program for Presbyterian church leaders in Honduras. As he received his diploma recognizing completion of a year of study, he had tears in his eyes. He shared with his classmates, colleagues and teachers how he never attended a day of school in his life, he was raised away from his parents “on the streets” and is a farmer. He told about how he never thought that he would receive any kind of diploma. What saved him, he said, was encountering Jesus Christ and following Christ alongside his brothers and sisters in the church.

That’s what has really changed in this scripture story. Fishermen called as equals to Christ. Farmers and government workers and house cleaners and cooks and mothers and construction workers and students, called as equals, as brothers and sisters, to follow Christ.

We are called into kinship with Christ in this passage. The kingdom of God has broken through, shockingly tearing open the sky at Jesus baptism, when Christ’s heavenly father descended as a dove and said, “This is my son, whom I love,” and the kingdom of God will again shockingly tear through the Temple curtain at Jesus’ death.

And what Simon and Andrew and James and John are called to, and we along with them, is radical brother- and sisterhood with the Christ.

We are called to be the ones who become Christ for others.

MLK Jr. wrote in his pastoral prayer in 1956: “We thank thee for thy Church, founded upon thy Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon thee.”

The very answer to our prayers for change, for revolution, for a new kingdom, depends upon us, and our willingness to follow the call, to live into radical kinship with Jesus Christ.

Additional sources: Spencer, F Scott. 2005. “‘Follow me’: the imperious call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.” Interpretation 59, no. 2: 142-153. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed January 18, 2018). Juel, Donald H, and Patrick R Keifert. “A Markan epiphany: lessons from Mark 1.” Word & World 8, no. 1 (1988 1988): 80-85. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed January 18, 2018).