We prayed for the transformation of this building into a new purpose, blessing all the people who will experience the presence of God here in the months and years to come. We met in the middle, grasped hands, and knelt in the center of the room.
On a recent Saturday, I spent time with women of the Presbyterian church of Honduras, as they fasted, prayed, and consecrated a retreat center that they are newly managing as a ministry of the church.
The Presbyterian women’s council met in April to fast, pray and consecrate the grounds of Villa Gracia in Tegucigalpa.
In pairs we walked through the property, blessing the major buildings and grounds: the dormitories, the chapels, the trees and grass, the entrance, the kitchen. We touched doorposts and tree trunks with hands carrying olive oil, and we prayed prayers of blessing. I was chosen with my partner to bless a large partially outdoor structure that previously had been a parking shed. New concrete floors have been laid, and a wall has been newly painted. Since the retreat center has been under new ownership, it has housed several large gatherings, including my installation as mission co-worker in Honduras.
My partner María Elena and I moved from one end of the room to the other, on opposite walls, placing our hands on the walls, and the bits of furniture, and the floor, and we prayed individually for the transformation of this building into a new purpose, blessing all the people who will experience the presence of God here in the months and years to come. We met in the middle, grasped hands, and knelt in the center of the room. María Elena prayed her prayer in Spanish, as did I, and then I sang a song in English, and then she sang in Spanish.
“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,” I sang. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”
I haven’t sung this song in years; the last time I remember singing it was in my childhood church in New Mexico. I don’t know what made it pop into my head, except for the movement of the Holy Spirit, during this intimate Pentecost moment. María Elena said later that she felt “transported,” and I felt the same. The parking lot had been transformed into a sanctuary, and a bilingual one at that, she said.
Whenever we invoke the Holy Spirit, speaking the language too deep for words, knowing that transformation and renewal is taking place, we are experiencing Pentecost.
This year the tapestry of partnerships between U.S. and Honduran Presbyterians became more intricate. The women’s ministry of the Honduran Presbyterian Church received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Presbyterian Women organization — about two-thirds of what is needed to purchase and refurbish a retreat center called Villa Gracia. The center will become a place where all 26 congregations in Honduras may gather for spiritual formation, conferences, camps and education. In two months, the women’s ministry has hosted a day-long retreat titled “The Power of the Wise Woman,” a three-day pastoral education encounter, a lunch-time presentation of scholarships to 95 youth, and a church plenary meeting. The chair of the women’s committee, Selenia Ordóñez, says that the job was so big, she worried it couldn’t be done. “I was stressed out and anxious,” she said, as the women cleaned and repaired rooms, sewed bedclothes and curtains, and planned menus. “But after a successful first event, I started to think it might be possible.” The women say that they trust in God’s help that they will make Villa Gracia into a life-giving and sustainable retreat and conference center.
I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because THE LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9, Common English Bible
This verse was read before I knelt and prayed before the Presbyterian congregations of Honduras, their pastors’ hands laid on me, and I was installed as the mission co-worker assigned to work with them for the next four-year term.
The commandment to be “brave and strong,” to not be afraid, was particularly meaningful to me because I arrived in Honduras immediately after a time of political turmoil and violence. At the time of my installation, I had spent the previous month heeding my Honduran colleagues’ advice on where to go and not go, whether to drive alone, whether to visit strange neighborhoods for the first time. I had chosen a rental home and a car with safety and security as my primary goals. I had watched news of political protesters killed by military forces, police officers killed by gang members, bus drivers extorted for “taxes” to thugs, a corporate executive arrested for masterminding the assassination of an environmental activist. There is plenty to fear in Honduras.
I am used to being independent and bold — as a journalist and as a chaplain, I went into places where others feared to tread. I am not used to heeding the fears and worries of others: I travel alone, I live alone, I have driven cross-country alone, I have accompanied the dying alone in their hospital rooms.
“Be brave and strong.” “Don’t be terrified.” I mulled over those words as I knelt on Pastor Edin Samayoa’s sweater — he had taken it off and put it on the floor to cushion my knees. Pastor Edin leads a church in a neighborhood where I am not allowed to go alone, or at night, and where newcomers have to announce their presence, roll down the car windows, and get permission from gang members to enter.
Your God goes with you wherever you go. Those words were made flesh to me as I was helped to my feet, and dozens of people, everyone in the congregation, came forward to embrace me and hug me tight, and whisper in my ear their blessings and prayers. “I’m with you, you’re not alone.” “I pray God’s blessing on you.” “You are already a blessing to us, and we are so happy you’re here.” “Whatever you need, we will be there for you.” “We love you.” I felt their hands on my shoulders, their lips on my cheek, their tears of joy and welcome on my shoulder.
They are with me, and I am with them, and God is among us, wherever we are. In my short time in Honduras, I have seen the flowering of new projects and ideas, sparks of the Holy Spirit’s movement — among lay pastors studying to improve their care of their congregations, among women working to take over and renovate a spiritual retreat center for the benefit of all 26 Presbyterian churches here. I am learning also to reach out towards the warm spirit of caring that has been offered to me here. Nothing I do here will be alone. The Holy Spirit will be with me, embodied in the care and concern of hundreds of church members, the hospitality of strangers who have become family. I am learning to leave “alone” behind.
“El Horno, Comayagua, Honduras. A small community of indigenous Lenca descendants. Located in the mountains in the area of Comayagua. A place that is difficult to get to, so no church was willing to go there. A pastor said one day ‘I have come to the end of the earth.'”
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.
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).
Over the past ten years in Honduras, Berta Cáceres successfully organized her indigenous Lenca people’s community against a World Bank- and private business-funded dam project that was implemented with little or no input from local inhabitants of the Guadalcarque River. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, as the dam project was stalled, and investors fled. In 2016, Cáceres was shot to death in her home, in a town called La Esperanza, which cooincidentally in Spanish means “hope.” Eight men have been arrested, but the murderers have not been brought to justice. Many murderers in Honduras are not.
I imagine that Berta’s heart cries out. But with joy? With hope? Hope for what? She hopes for what she never will see.
The violence menaces still. Honduras is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, for environmental and political activists, for community organizers, for women. Dozens of activists are killed each year, hundreds of women, with impunity. In three weeks leading up to the national election on Nov. 26, at least four political activists, from various parties, were attacked and killed. At least one protester, a 19-year-old woman, has been killed in the weeks since the election.
I work for the church, a U.S. Presbyterian mission co-worker, partnering with the Honduran Presbyterian church. I do not know what I ought to pray for. Is it enough, surrounded by such menace, to say that we care for our congregants’ souls, and we leave “politics” out on the church steps?
As She—Mary, Berta, Spirit—intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, we do not know what we ought to pray for. We hope against hope, though we die. The world is about to turn, the hymn says. Until the world turns, creation groans, the earth groans, our very bodies groan, and the body of Christ groans for the redemption that has been promised today, not tomorrow, not after death, but now, in the turning of the world.