September 22, 2011

It’s been a year since I posted.  Found this compelling piece from Jim Wallis at Sojourners and thought is it very appropriate for the current political debate in the US.

 

The hot phrase inWashington,D.C., this week is “class warfare.”

Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and a host of Republican presidential candidates have attacked President Barack Obama as a class warrior because he has suggested that the wealthiest individuals in the country, along with the largest corporations, should pay what he calls their “fair share” of the costs of both deficit reduction and putting Americans back to work.

Well, let’s be clear: There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.

As former President Bill Clinton also pointed out this week, 90 percent of income gains in the last decade went to the top 10 percent, and 40 percent of the increased wealth went to the top 1 percent. The middle class has lost ground in the same period. And we can now say that the only growth in this economy seems to be the skyrocketing poverty figures that the Census Bureau released last week. Almost 50 million Americans are now in poverty — the highest rate in 50 years, including 22 percent of all our children — in this the richest country in the world.

Let’s put it another way: The only people doing well in this economy are the people at the very top, some of whose selfish behavior caused this recession in the first place. Only they have “recovered” from the crisis they helped create. The rest of us are still trying to recover. That’s a war being waged by Wall Street againstMain Street. And Wall Street is winning that war.

But when anybody talks about fairness or equity or morality in economics, or when anyone even begins to challenge the greatest inequality since the 1920s, they are quickly accused of engaging in “class warfare.” So why is it when the top 1 percent of the country controls 42 percent of the nation’s financial wealth — more than 90 percent of the rest of us — and the ratio of CEO pay to average workers salaries is 400 to 1, it is NOT class warfare? Yet simply calling for a return of the highest-end tax rates to the 1990s levels IS?

Imagine a bomber pilot cruising high above the clouds, utterly destroying a city below him. After much devastation, a kid with a sling shot hurls a stone at the airplane that is leveling his city and community. The stone pings on the fuselage and the pilot becomes indignant. “These people are engaged in warfare,” he exclaims. “Who do they think they are? This kind of behavior will divide people and is just irresponsible!”

Wall Street has been devastating Main Streetfor some time. And when the politicians — most of them bought by Wall Street — say nothing, it’s called “responsible economics.” But when somebody, anybody, complains about people suffering and that the political deck in official Washingtonhas been stacked in favor of Wall Street, the accusation of class warfare quickly emerges. “Just who do these people think they are,” they ask. The truth is that the people screaming about class warfare this week aren’t really concerned about the warfare. They’re just concerned that their class — or the class that has bought and paid for their political careers — continues to win the war.

So where is God in all of this? Is God into class warfare? No, of course not. God really does love us all, sinners and saints alike, rich and poor, mansion dwellers and ghetto residents. But the God of the Bible has a special concern for the poor and is openly suspicious of the rich. And if that is not clear in the Bible, nothing is.

You might say when it comes to economics, God has a bias toward the poor. God’s prophets say that nations will be judged by how they treat the poor and vulnerable — not by how much they lower tax rates for the wealthy. Listen to what the prophets Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah say about the rich and the poor, about fairness and justice, about inequality and equity. Is there any doubt that if the biblical prophets were saying such things in the House of Representatives or on Fox News today that they, too, would all be accused of class warfare?

What about Jesus? Mary, the mother of Jesus, spoke clearly about his coming and his meaning in history when she prophesied about his mission in her famous prayer/song known as the Magnificat. She predicts how the child in her womb will reverse the status quo, saying, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” These are not the words of a humble and charitable service provider, but the language of a social revolutionary who would certainly be charged with class warfare today on conservative talk radio.

Jesus fulfilled his mother’s prophesy in his own Nazareth Manifesto — his first words, in Luke 4 — by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” He clearly should have been more sensitive to the rich who, after all, are job creators, right? How did all the prophets and Jesus miss that essential economic point?

In 2008, the wealthiest 400 Americans on average paid only 18 percent of their income in taxes. But they (and their political representatives) continue to angrily push back against the so-called “Buffett Rule,” which would require wealthy people to at least pay taxes at rates closer to what their secretaries and other employees do.

“Class warfare might make for good politics, but it makes for rotten economics,” Rep. Paul Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday” earlier this week.

But, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund, Ryan is just wrong. The IMF report says the widening income gap is bad for economic recovery. Growing income inequality actually hinders economic growth, and reducing economic inequality actually helps spur the economy, the report found.

The IMF study concluded that a 10 percent decrease in inequality actually increased the expected economic growth by 50 percent. “Sustainable economic reform,” the authors write, “is possible only when its benefits are widely shared.”

So the call for economic fairness — what Paul Ryan decries as “class warfare” — may not be “rotten economics” at all but, in fact, rather good economics, as well as good morality.

Maybe God has a point.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

 

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Sermon August 1, 2010

September 5, 2010

Luke 12:13-21

It’s been noted that the Lord Jesus spoke a great deal about money and especially possessions – for in his times, wealth was measured not so much through money but through the lands that one owned and also – sad to say – the people that lived on those lands under control of the owner.  However that may be, Jesus spoke a lot about this topic, and the whole of Luke chapter 12 is dedicated to what we own.

The story that Jesus told speaks of a man who had many inherited properties, that is, he had received a great deal from his ancestors.  He had not worked with his own hands to win what he had; it was free.

And he prospered with what he had.  He realized a harvest greater than those of other years.  What to do with so much?  He decided to hoard what he had.

The decision is very serious.  Even today, those who own much property tend to hoard. For example, in many places the poor working people of the countryside need farm inputs so that their land can produce a harvest, and for those they must take out loans.

When the harvest comes, they have to sell their product immediately to pay off their loan and avoid more interest. Since everyone is harvesting, there are many products and the prices are low.  They have to sell, because in addition to the debt they have no place to store the harvest.

Later on when they begin to feel hunger, they have to buy the grain back, at a higher price, from the hoarder. They also have to buy their seed at a higher price, and so the cycle continues of poverty and exploitation.

Perhaps this landowner in the story had this idea, to hoard his goods and sell them at a high price when scarcity came. It didn’t occur to him to share this great harvest.  It was all about him.  He thought only of how to take advantage of the situation.  He decided to have a good time, take it easy, and live in greater luxury than he had ever known before.

In the Lord’s Prayer, the request of the people is “Give us this day our daily bread” an expression of faith that God will provide what is needed for today. But it is not given so that we may hoard for the entire year.  This man did not believe in God, but in his own riches.  He put his confidence in what he owned.

Then God said to him, “Fool.  Idiot. Imbecile.”  Strong words.  “What are you thinking?  This very night…”    Now, among the Jews the beginning of a new day was counted from the previous night.  The day always began at sundown.  So “this night” is the beginning of a new day.  “Fool” says God, “in the beginning of this new day, something is going to happen.  They are going to demand your soul.”

Who is going to demand the soul of this man? While I was studying this summer at Virginia Theological Seminary, there was a teacher who lectured on stewardship, the management of what God has commended to us. Many times in stewardship classes you already know what the topic will be: how to encourage people to give their offerings to the church so it can carry out its mission. It is like a code word, which really means “offerings”. And the assumed message from this story would be, “You are going to die soon, so it’s better if you leave your wealth to the church.”

This teacher surprised me. He spoke about this very passage, and he said that those that are coming to demand the soul of this man are his possessions, the things he “has”. Except they “have” him.  In fact, he has already turned over his soul to them.  He said, “Soul, you have many possessions stored for many years.  Rest, eat, drink, rejoice.” His belongings are coming to demand his soul, and he has already given it to them. He lives for his belongings.  He lives for the pleasure he can get from them, without considering the needs of those around him, or his responsibility. “On this new day that begins with nightfall, things will be different because you have given yourself, body and soul, to your possessions.”  

Jesus emphasized that no one else can make decisions for us. A man came and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”  Jesus said, “Friend, who made me a judge over you?”  He did not want the man to evade his own decision of how he felt about that inheritance, and why he was so worried that his brother might get more than he, that there was a competition reflecting his own values, his self-esteem based on whether he possessed much or little.  Each person has to decide the way to relate to their own belongings.

This is what that teacher, Scott Schanztenbach, said this summer: Stewardship is about the relationship between a disciple and their stuff.  That word stuff is hard to put into any other language that I know of. In some places where Spanish is spoken, the term “garrero” is used. But it usually means stuff that that one does not want.  In Nicaragua people speak of “chunchero” but it almost always means something that gets in the way, as in “Get that chunchero out of here”. But in English, “stuff” is something we have that we generally want to keep, “my stuff”.

The relationship between and disciple and their “stuff” is stewardship. It is a totally spiritual question, more than financial, more than material, although it is also that.  God is a materialist.  God created material.  And God is concerned about our relationship with material stuff. God gives us stuff for our good and for our stewardship, and if we allow stuff to take the place of God in our lives, we deserve to be called fool, idiot, and even stronger words – because we have lost the inheritance that God wants to give us.

It’s about daily decisions.  Not too long ago I obtained some food for a family in need.  I took them a box of food, and in a few hours I found out that they had shared what they had with another person, a man who came by on a bicycle asking for something to feed his family. Our daily bread is for us to share. 

This attitude made me recognize once again the spirit of plenty versus the spirit of scarcity. If we live with a spirit of scarcity, we say, “We have this much and we have to keep it because this is all we have.”  If we live in the spirit of plenty, we say, “God has provided and will continue to provide, and sometimes we are the means by which God provides to other people.”   When we see a need we share without fear of lack.  It is an attitude of the heart.

As the Lord Jesus repeats in Luke 12:34, where your treasure is, there is your heart also.  And this is in the plural.  Where the treasure of all of you is, there is the heart of all of you. This is not a message just for an isolated individual but also for the community, the people, the church. How many times have we seen the sad sight of a church that has stopped living for its mission and has begun to worry only about survival, how to care for its building, what it has, the group that meets there and nothing more?  The teacher Scott also indicated this summer that a church that lives for itself is a church headed for death, because its possessions have demanded its soul.

When property is more important than mission, a church has already lost its soul, which is invested in the building and not in sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, sharing by its deeds, by its priorities, and even sometimes by its words. 

This has to do not only with the external mission of the church.  Our collective heart as a community of faith clearly expresses itself through the importance we give to the way we treat each other within the church. 

Yesterday I spoke with a church brother about the church in Corinth, to which the Apostle Paul wrote at least two letters, and maybe more, in which he had to speak sadly of the problems within that congregation.  One problem was that when they gathered to share the supper of the Lord, there was not a heart of generosity to reflect the ministry and practice of Jesus.

The people met, not for a symbolic supper like the one we celebrate in communion or the Eucharist, but to eat a meal together sharing the foods they brought. Some had much and others little.  The problem was that some arrived earlier because they could, and others arrived late from work, because the Lord’s Day was nothing special in the culture of Corinth where the majority was not Christian.

The church would meet, and those who came late would find that there was very little food left. Those who came early were overfed and because wine was served they were also somewhat drunk.

Paul wrote and said, “No wonder this church is sick. When you eat and drink you do not discern the body of Christ.”  This has been interpreted to mean that when one does not take the Lord’s Supper, communion, in a respectful way, one will become ill.  I think there is a much deeper meaning: that if the sharing that happens around the table does not reflect in an authentic way the spirit of Christ, it is worthless.

We are the body of Christ.  If we do not recognize this, if we do not treat each other as part of this body, we do not discern the body and we treat one another as if the other person did not matter.

It has been said that we should use things and love people, but many times we love things and use people.  If this is our attitude as a church, as a people, as individuals, it is a sick life, about which God says, “Fool!  Your belongings have claimed you and demanded the possession of your soul!”

The vision of Jesus Christ for his body, for the church, the vision he expressed in chapter 12 of Luke is “Human life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

If it does not consist of this, then of what does it consist?  In abundance that shares, in a generous spirit. When we come to share around the communion table, in a spirit of true self-giving, of committed solidarity, when we share around this table we will come to share in all of our lives, and we will love generously as God has loved us in Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God for love beyond understanding!

Sermon 1 de agosto de 2010

September 5, 2010

Lucas 12:13-21

Se ha notado que el Señor Jesucristo hablaba mucho acerca del dinero, las pertenencias – porque en esos tiempos no se medía la riqueza tanto por el dinero sino de los terrenos que poseía una persona y también – es triste decirlo – de la gente que vivía en esos terrenos bajo control del terrateniente.  Sea lo que sea, Jesús hablaba mucho de este tema, y el capítulo entero de Lucas 12 de dedica a lo que poseemos.

La historia que contó Jesús habla de un hombre que tenía muchas herencias, es decir, había recibido mucho de parte de sus antepasados.  No había trabajado con sus propias manos para ganarse lo que tenía.  Lo había recibido gratis.

Y prosperó mucho lo que él tenía.  Tuvo una cosecha más grande que en otros años.  En ese momento, tuvo un dilema.  ¿Qué hacer con tantas cosas?  Decidió acaparar todo lo que tenía.

Es muy seria la decisión.  Aún hoy día, los que tienen mucha propiedad, acostumbran acaparar.  Por ejemplo, en muchos lados los campesinos pobres necesitan insumos para que produzca su tierra una cosecha, y para eso necesitan sacar un préstamo.

Al momento de la cosecha, tienen que vender el producto de inmediato para pagar su deuda y evitar mayores intereses.  Como todo mundo está cosechando, hay bastante producto, y el precio es bajo.  Pero el campesino tiene que vender, porque además de la deuda no tiene donde guardar la cosecha.

Cuando empieza a sentir hambre más tarde, tiene que ir a comprar el grano de nuevo, ya a un precio más alto, del acaparador.  También tiene que comprar su semilla a un precio alto.  Es así como continúa el ciclo de la pobreza y la explotación.

Quizá este terrateniente del cuento tenía esta idea, de acaparar sus bienes y venderlos a un precio alto cuando hubiera escasez.  No se le ocurrió compartir lo que tenía de es gran cosecha.  Todo se trataba de él.  Sólo pensó cómo aprovecharse de la situación. Decidió regocijarse, sosegarse, y vivir en un lujo mayor que lo que había conocido hasta ese momento.

En el Padre Nuestro, la petición del pueblo es “Danos hoy el pan nuestro de cada día”, expresión de fe que Dios proveerá lo necesario para el día de hoy.  Pero no para que acaparemos para todo el año.  Este hombre no creía en Dios, sino en sus propias riquezas. Puso su confianza en lo que le pertenecía.

Luego Dios le dijo “Necio. Tonto. Imbécil.” Palabras fuertes.  “¿Qué estás pensando? Esta noche …” Ahora bien, entre los judíos se contaba el principio del nuevo día desde la noche anterior.  Siempre empezaba el día con la puesta del sol.  Así que “este noche” es el inicio de un nuevo día. “Necio,” dice Dios, “en el inicio de este nuevo día, algo va a pasar.  Vienen a pedirte tu alma.”

¿Quiénes viene a pedirle el alma a este hombre?   Mientras yo estudiaba este verano en el Seminario Teológico de Virginia, hubo un maestro que dictó un tema sobre la mayordomía, el manejo de lo que Dios no encomienda.   Muchas veces las clases de mayordomía, uno ya sabe de qué se va a hablar: de cómo animarle a la gente a que dé sus ofrendas a la iglesia para que cumpla su misión.  Es como una palabra secreta, que en verdad significa “ofrendas”.  Y el mensaje que se sacaría de esta historia sería, “Ya que vas a morir, mejor deja tu dinero para la iglesia.”

Este maestro me sorprendió. Habló de este pasaje, y dijo que los que vienen a pedirle el alma a este necio, son sus pertenencias, las cosas que el “tiene”.  De hecho, él ya entregó su alma.  Ya dijo, “Alma, muchos bienes tienes guardados para muchos años.  Repósate, come, bebe, regocíjate.”  Sus pertenencias vienen a exigirle el alma, y él ya se lo ha entregado a ellos.  Vive para sus posesiones.  Vive para el placer que les puede sacar, sin tomar en cuenta la necesidad de la gente que lo rodea, ni su responsabilidad. “En este nuevo día que empieza al anochecer, las cosas serán diferentes porque ya te has entregado cuerpo y alma a tus posesiones.”

Jesús enfatizó que nadie más puede tomar estas decisiones para nosotros. Vino un hombre y le dijo, “Maestro, dile a mi hermano que comparta la herencia conmigo.”  Jesús dijo, “Amigo, ¿quién me ha puesto sobre ustedes como juez?”  Jesús se negó a tomar ese papel.  No quería que el hombre mismo evadiera su propia decisión de cómo se sentía acerca de esa herencia, y por qué está tan preocupado que su hermano vaya a sacar más que él, que hay una competencia que refleja sus propios valores, su autoestima, si posee poco o mucho.  Cada persona tiene que decidir la forma en que se va a relacionar con sus pertenencias.

Esto es lo que dijo aquel maestro Scott Schanztenbach este verano: “La mayordomía consiste en la relación entre un discípulo y sus cosas.”  Estaba hablando en inglés y usó una palabra que casi no se puede traducir al español: “stuff”. En algunas partes la gente habla del garrero.  Pero “garrero” más que nada significa cosas que le impiden a uno.  En Nicaragua hablan de “chunchero”, pero casi siempre como algo que estorba, como decir, “Quita ese chunchero de ahí.”  En cambio “stuff” en inglés es algo que tenemos, que mayormente queremos guardar “my stuff”. 

La relación entre un discípulo y su “stuff”  es la mayordomía.  Es una pregunta sumamente espiritual, más que financiera, más que material, aunque eso también entra.  Dios es materialista.  Creó el material.  Y se preocupa de nuestra relación con las cosas materiales.  Nos da lo material para nuestro bien y para nuestra mayordomía, y si permitimos que las cosas tomen el lugar de Dios en nuestra vida, merecemos que se nos llame necio, necia, tonto, tonta – y hasta palabras más fuertes – porque hemos perdido la herencia que Dios nos quiere dar.

Se trata de decisiones diarias.  Hace poco conseguí unos alimentos para una familia que estaba en necesidad.  Les entregué la caja de alimentos, y a pocas horas me di cuenta que había compartido lo que tenía con otra persona, que pasó en bicicleta por donde viven, pidiendo algo para alimentar a su familia.  El pan nuestro de cada día es para compartir. 

Esa actitud me hizo reconocer nuevamente lo que es el espíritu de plenitud versus el espíritu de escasez.   Si vivimos en espíritu de escasez, decimos, “Tenemos esta cantidad y hay que guardarla porque es lo que tenemos.” Si vivimos en espíritu de plenitud, decimos, “Dios ha provisto, y seguirá proveyendo, y a veces somos el medio por el cual provee para otras personas.”  Al ver una necesidad compartimos sin temor de que nos falte.  Es actitud del corazón.

Como repite el Señor Jesús en Lucas 12:34, donde está su tesoro, allí también está su corazón.” Y es en el plural.  “Donde está el tesoro de ustedes, allí está el corazón de ustedes”.  No es un mensaje sólo para cada persona individual, sino también para la comunidad, el pueblo, la iglesia.  Cuantas veces no hemos visto el triste ejemplo de una iglesia que ha dejado de vivir para su misión y se ha preocupado solamente por sobrevivir, cuidar de su edificio, de lo que tiene, del grupo que se reúne allí, y nada más.  Es lo que indicó también el maestro Scott este verano: una iglesia que vive para sí es una iglesia que va hacia la muerte, porque sus pertenencias le han exigido el alma. 

Cuando la propiedad es más importante que la misión, una iglesia ya ha perdido su alma, que está invertido en el edificio y no en compartir las buenas noticias del amor de Dios en Jesucristo, compartiendo con sus hechos, con sus prioridades y aun hasta a veces con sus palabras.

No solamente tiene que ver con la misión exterior de la iglesia.  También la importancia que damos a las formas que nos tratamos dentro de la iglesia expresa claramente dónde está nuestro corazón colectivo como comunidad de fe.

Ayer hablé con un hermano acerca de la iglesia en Corinto, a la cual el Apóstol Pablo escribió por lo menos dos cartas, y probablemente otras más, en las cuales tuvo que referirse con tristeza los problemas que existían en esa congregación.  Uno de ellos era que cuando se reunían para compartir la cena del Señor, no había un corazón generoso que reflejara el ministerio y la práctica de Jesús. 

La gente se reunía, no para una cena simbólica como la que celebramos en la comunión o eucaristía, sino para comer entre todos los alimentos que se traían.  Unos tenían mucho y otros poco.  El problema era que unos llegaban temprano porque podían y otros llegaban tarde del trabajo, porque el día domingo no era día especial en la cultura de Corinto donde la mayoría no era cristiana.

La iglesia se reunía, y los que llegaban tarde veían que casi ya no había comida. Los que llegaron temprano estaban repletos y además porque se servía vino estaban un tanto borrachos también.

Pablo escribió y dijo, “Con razón es una iglesia enferma.  Ustedes al comer y beber no han reconocido el cuerpo de Cristo.”  Se ha dicho por eso que uno que no toma la Santa cena, la comunión, de una forma respetuosa se va a enfermar.  Creo que tiene un sentido mucho más profundo, que el compartir alrededor de la mesa del Señor, si no refleja de una forma auténtica el espíritu de Cristo, no tiene valor.

Nosotros y nosotras somos el cuerpo de Cristo.  Si no lo reconocemos, si no nos tratamos unos a otros como parte de ese cuerpo, no reconocemos ese cuerpo y nos tratamos como si no valiera la otra persona. 

Se ha dicho que debemos usar las cosas y amar a la gente, pero muchas veces usamos a la gente y amamos las cosas.  Si es la actitud que tenemos como iglesia, como pueblo, como gente individual, es una vida enferma, de la cual Dios dice, “¡Necio! Tus pertenencias ya han reclamado y exigido la posesión de tu alma.”

La visión de Jesucristo para su cuerpo, para la iglesia, la visión que expresó en este capítulo 12 de Lucas, es: “La vida del humano no consiste el la abundancia de los bienes que posee.” 

Si no consiste en eso, entonces, ¿en qué consiste?  En la abundancia que comparte, en el espíritu generoso.  Cuando llegamos a compartir alrededor de la mesa de la comunión, en un espíritu de verdadera entrega, de compromiso solidario, al compartir en esta mesa llegaremos también a compartir en toda nuestra vida, y amaremos generosamente como Dios mismo nos ha amado en Jesucristo.  ¡Gracias a Dios por su amor inefable!

Un vistazo hacia la historia de Iglesia Congregacional Unida

June 9, 2010

Iglesia Congregacional Unida, de la cual soy pastor, llevó a cabo un Ejercicio Recordatorio el 6 de junio de 2010, después de un almuerzo al concluir el culto.  Se había preparado un mural de antemano.  Se revisó la historia inicial de ICU de 1892 a 1950, y luego al llegar a la mitad del siglo pasado, empezaron a recontar las personas que actualmente tienen más historia con la iglesia.

Del proceso de recordar, se destilaron los valores y la misión al final del ejercicio. Éstos vinieron de las experiencias de ser fundad como misión ecuménica a fines del siglo 19 y a principios del siglo 20 entre la población hispana del sur de Alburquerque, con crecimiento a una iglesia servicial en la comunidad.

Valores que han prevalecido durante la historia de ICU son los siguientes.

  1. Base en la Palabra de amor y justicia, que solamente es bastante para el llamado y la fidelidad de la iglesia en su misión.
  2. Reflexión del contexto cultural, lingüístico, y ético de la iglesia, al encarnar el amor y la justicia de Dios como se nos ha dado a conocer especialmente por medio de Jesús el Cristo.
  3. Servicio and niños/as, a los que carecen de alimentos y cuidado médico, y a los olvidados y marginados, para defender su dignidad humana.
  4. Autonomía de la congregación, de acuerdo al sistema de gobierno Congregacional y además como una minoría étnica en relaciones desiguales de poder frente a la denominación y la sociedad.
  5. Colaboración y unidad de acción con otras entidades y comunidades de buena voluntad.
  6. Liderazgo laico en culto, música y programas de servicio.

 

Desde su inicio como iglesia establecida en 1926, Iglesia Congregacional Unida ha recibido su liderazgo pastoral principalmente de las diversas comunidades llamadas españolas, hispanas, latinas, chicanas, o latinoamericanas.  El liderazgo laico de gobernación también ha surgido en su mayoría de esta misma agrupación étnica y cultural.

Ha habido unos 13 pastores y pastoras que han servido por plazos significativos, además de interinos y temporarios. Tres de los/as pastores/as instalados/as han venido de trasfondos étnicos distintos a los de la mayoría de la congregación, y uno de los 3 (el actual pastor) es bicultural, habiendo nacido en México de padres norteamericanos. De los/as 13 pastores/as, 2 han sido mujeres – una hispana y una “anglo”.  

(Un beneficio del ejercicio congregacional fue el aclarar para algunas personas que ha habido 2 pastores con el apellido Hernández, y dos pastores con el apellido Ávila. ¡Esta situación había provocado confusión cuando miembros más establecidos hablaban del “Pastor Hernández” o el “Pastor Ávila” en diferentes décadas muy separadas!)

En la segunda mitad del siglo 20, ocurría con frecuencia una crisis en ICU al partir el pastor o la pastora. En un caso, el pastor murió en la casa pastoral y su cadáver no fue descubierto por varios días. En otro caso, la congregación terminó por boicotear a un pastor contratado porque les parecía que él quería sacar a la iglesia de la denominación.  Partió al vencerse su contrato de 6 meses, y la congregación volvió a ocupar el edificio.

En los últimos 30 años, han sido pocos los pastores que han llegado a ICU por los procesos ordinarios de búsqueda y llamado.  A lo contrario, las circunstancias y la disponibilidad n momentos de necesidad han resultado en que algunos han sido apuntados (estilo metodista) o contratados/as, y en un caso un predicador por varios años sirvió de semana en semana sin contrato. 

Dado que el liderazgo de habla hispana dentro de la Iglesia Unida de Cristo (y antes de la Iglesia Cristiana Congregacional) has sido muy limitado, ICU ha tenido pastores/as de muchos trasfondos – Metodista Unida, Presbiteriana, Episcopal, y sin denominación.

Sin embargo, líderes fuertes y de visión han mantenido a ICU en su camino de misión en la UCC, en las buenas y en las malas, Han ocurrido colaboración y también confrontación entre ICU y otras congregaciones más poderosas de la UCC.  Algunas memorias dolorosas aún se mantienen sobre proyectos en conjunto en donde ICU parecía ser socio de segunda clase (por muchos años la iglesia llevaba el nombre oficial de “Segunda Iglesia Congregacional” – en inglés, Second Congregational Church.)

Otro punto doloroso para el liderazgo de ICU fue el trato que vieron como resultado de ser por muchos años una iglesia misión.  Por recibir fondos de afuera, el sentido fue que en muchos contextos ICU fue presentada a las otras iglesias de la conferencia en formas que disminuían su o menospreciaban su valor.  Un hincapié importante para ICU fue la independencia económica en las últimas décadas del siglo 20. Aunque no podía pagar a un pastor de tiempo completo, sin embargo ICU se mantiene propiamente y contribuye una proporción alta de su presupuesto a la misión de la conferencia y la iglesia en general.  

El anexo del templo es un elemento clave en la misión local de ICU.  Un concilio y un pastor tuvieron la visión en la década de los 70 de comprar e instalar este edificio. En su trayectoria, ha servido como sede de una escuelita preescolar, una guardería infantil para familias reambulantes, un centro para madres adolescentes solteras, un proyecto económico para mujeres inmigrantes víctimas de abuso doméstico, un proyecto de desarrollo económico, y un centro de derechos para inmigrantes y desarrollo de la comunidad. Varios proyectos han crecido tanto que ya no han podido caber y se han ido a otro sitio donde han prosperado.

El alcance a niño/as se inició por lo menos a mediados del siglo pasado, cuando muchos miembros eran pobres y dependían a veces de los alimentos provistos por la iglesia para nutrir bien a sus familias. La Guerra Sobre La Pobreza (War on Poverty) costeó la provisión de atención médica para muchas familias. La escuelita y Cuidando los Niños fueron reemplazados en la década de los 90 por programas juveniles con apoyo de voluntarios/as metodistas y católicas y al trabajo del pastor actual y un miembro con jóvenes delincuentes.

La música tiene función importante en el culto y el alcance a otras congregaciones y a la sociedad en general. Hasta que falleció hace varios años, un pianista dirigió el coro de la iglesia. El grupo de guitarra actual toca en eventos especiales, por ejemplo transiciones pastorales y festivales musicales – y hasta ventas de baratas. Nuevos miembros se han agrupado a la iglesia por su participación en el grupo de guitarra.  

En ICU el piano (y ahora el teclado electrónico) como instrumentos exclusivos en el culto han sido reemplazados por una expresión más amplia.  Esto es emblema de los cambios en los últimos 15 años – un énfasis sobre el alcance y servicio a inmigrantes. La lucha histórica de ICU por ser reconocidos y valorados en la sociedad mayoritaria, les ha dado la perspectiva necesaria para reconocer que actualmente el inmigrante, especialmente hispano-parlante, sufre una discriminación parecida.

Al cambiar los contextos, la iglesia mira hacia sus valores claves y la inspiración del Espíritu al tomas pasos hacia el futuro. La salida del Centro de Igualdad y Derechos del anexo (porque ha crecido y ya no cabe) plantea de nuevo la pregunta de cómo puede ser fiel ICU en esta nueva generación.  Quizá próximamente sirva el anexo como refugio para familias que huyen de la persecución que sufren en el estado vecino de Arizona.

Hay un número creciente de inmigrantes y otros que no manejan el idioma castellano pero que empiezan a identificarse con la comunidad de fe que es ICU. Esta realidad nuevamente pone el reto de evaluar la misión de ICU en esta nueva década, y a la vez mantener el compromiso con “estos pequeños”. Para el pastor y el pueblo de Iglesia Congregacional Unida, el ejercicio de recordar ha dado la oportunidad de mirar hacia atrás y hacia delante, y decir, “Ebenezer – hasta aquí Dios nos ha ayudado.”

A Retrospective on Iglesia Congregacional Unida

June 9, 2010

Looking back over 100+ years of history, this is a reflection on the church that I serve as pastor.

A congregational rerflection was held on June 6, 2010, using a timeline as the pint of departure.  The time chart had been prepared ahead of time.  Early ICU history (1892-1950) was reviewed, and then as the mid-20th century came up, the older long-term members began to reminisce.

From the remembering process, values and mission were distilled at the close of the exercise.  These came from the experience of being founded from ecumenical mission efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among the Hispanic people of South Albuquerque and growing into a church that has served the community in many ways.

Values that have prevailed through much of the ICU church’s history are as follows.

  1. Basis in the Word of love and justice, which alone is sufficient (“bastante” in Spanish) to the calling and faithfulness of the church in its mission.
  2. Reflection of the cultural, linguistic, ethical context of the church, in embodying the love and justice of God as made known to us especially in Jesus, who we believe is the Christ.
  3. Service to children, to those in need of food and medical care, and to those who are forgotten or marginalized, defending their human dignity.
  4. Autonomy of the congregation, in keeping with the Congregational polity, but also as a minority ethnicity in relationships of unequal power within the denomination and the society.
  5. Collaboration and unity of action with other entities and communities of good will.
  6. Lay leadership in worship, music, and programs of service.

 

From its beginnings as a formally established church in 1926, Iglesia Congregacional Unida has received its pastoral leadership largely from the diverse communities variously called Spanish, Hispanic, Latino/Latina, Chicano/Chicana, or Latin American.  The governance leadership of the lay members has also been drawn largely from this same cluster of ethnicities and cultures.

There have been about 13 installed pastors who have served for significant periods of time, in addition to interim pastors and supply preachers. Three of the installed ICU pastors have been ethnically distinct from the majority of the congregation, and one of the three (the current pastor) is bicultural, having been born and raised in Mexico of North American (“Anglo”) parents. Two of the 13 pastors have been female – one Anglo and one Hispanic.

(One side benefit of the congregational exercise was to clarify for some newer members that here have been two pastors surnamed Hernández, and two pastors surnamed Ávila. This situation had provoked confusion when older members would reminisce about “Pastor Hernández” or “Pastor Ávila” in completely different decades!)

A pattern in the latter half of the 20th century was that the departure of a pastor brought about a crisis in ICU.  In one case, a pastor died in the parsonage and his body was not discovered for several days.  In another case, the congregation ended up boycotting a contracted interim who they perceived as trying to take the church out of the denomination. He departed after his six-month contract expired, and the congregation re-occupied the church building.

In the past 30 years, few pastors have come to ICU through a regular process of search and call.  Instead, circumstances and availability in a time of need have resulted in appointments (United Methodist-style) or contracting of pastors and in one case has led to the lengthy service of a supply preacher over several years.

Because of limited Spanish-speaking pastoral leadership available within the UCC denomination (and previously, the Christian Congregational Church), ICU has been served by pastors of many backgrounds — United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and non-denominational.

Nevertheless, strong and visionary lay leaders have held ICU on its mission course within the UCC through the ups and downs.  Both collaboration and confrontation have occurred over time between the church and other more powerful congregations in the UCC. Some memories still rankle over joint projects in which ICU seemed to be considered a second-class player (for many years the church was officially called “Second Congregational Church”).

One sore point for ICU leadership was the perceived treatment resulting from being a mission-supported church.  The sense was that in many settings ICU was presented to the other churches of the Conference in patronizing and demeaning ways because it was partially funded from outside.  A milestone for ICU was the economic independence achieved in the last two decades of the 20th century.  Although unable to pay a full-time pastor, ICU stands on its own financially and contributes a high proportion of its budget to church-wide and conference-wide offerings.

A key component of local mission is the church annex, bought and paid for by a visionary council and pastor in the 1970’s.  From its beginning, this building was dedicated to service of the community.  It has in its history housed a pre-school, a day care center for children whose families are homeless, a center for unwed teen mothers, an economic project for immigrant survivors of domestic violence, a community economic development project, and a center for immigrant rights and community organizing. Several of these projects, launched in this building, have outgrown it and gone on to prosper in other locations.

Outreach to children goes back at least to the mid-20th century, when many members were very poor and at times depended on food supplies from the church for good nutrition of their families.  Medical services furnished through War on Poverty programs helped many children develop in healthy ways. The church pre-school and the day care (Cuidando los Niños) gave way to youth outreach programs in the 90’s with support from United Methodist and Roman Catholic youth leaders and to the work of the current pastor and one church member in mentor programs for adjudicated youth.

Music plays an important role in worship and outreach both to un-churched populations and to fellow-Christians.  Until his death several years ago, a dedicated pianist-choir leader provided most of the music for worship.  The current guitar group plays at special events of other churches such as pastoral transitions or choir festivals – or even rummage sales.  New members have been brought into the church through participation in the guitar group.

The replacement in ICU of exclusively piano-based music (and, more recently, electronic keyboard music) with a broader range of expression is emblematic of the change in the past 15 years to an emphasis on outreach and service to immigrants.  The historical struggle of ICU members for recognition by the majority society has given them the perspective to recognize the current disenfranchisement of immigrants, especially those who are Spanish-speaking.

With changing contexts, the church looks to its core values and the inspiration of the Spirit as it takes new steps into the future.  The departure of the Centro de Igualdad y Derechos from the church annex (again, as it has outgrown the facility) raises again the question of how ICU shall be faithful in this new generation.  Perhaps the annex will next serve as a refuge for families that are fleeing the draconian treatment meted out to them in the neighboring state of Arizona.

The increasing number of non-Spanish speakers (immigrants and others) who begin to identify ICU as their faith community raises the challenge of re-evaluating the mission of the church in the new decade while still retaining the commitment to “the least of these”.  For the pastor and people of Iglesia Congregacional Unida, the Time Line Exercise has been at the very least a chance to look back, look forward and say “Ebenezer – thus far has God helped us.”

Sermon May 18 2010

May 30, 2010

Text: Acts 16:16-34

The story we heard last week continues. Paul and his companions have arrived in Philippi, a Roman city in Greece, in doing their mission work for the first time in Europe.   They encountered Lydia, a dealer in rich purple cloth, who invited them to stay in her home.

In this story we see oppressed people, people who suffer, people who are under the control of others. In the first place, obviously, is the woman, the enslaved girl from whom others were making a profit. The text in Greek says, “She had the spirit of a serpent.”  In Greece there was a place where a great serpent lived, and people came there to ask their fortune, believing that the serpent was wise and could tell them their future.  The staff of the place gave the interpretations, of course, but people believed that the answers came from the serpent, because serpents had a reputation for wisdom for knowledge hidden from ordinary people.  Jesus indeed had said, “Be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”   

This woman with a spirit that caused her to prophesy was very useful to those who had enslaved her. In those times people could be enslaved for a number of reasons. Sometimes they were captives in a war. Sometimes they had a great debt that they could not repay. In some cases, children were born into an enslaved family. We do not know why this woman was enslaved, but we do know that her owners had gained wealth from her. 

We also see Paul and Silas in prison, in the uncomfortable stocks where they could not move, with their legs held fast, at the mercy of the jailer, the authorities, and the mob that had attacked them.

Oppressed people, who are suffering injustice and mistreatment: this is not only a story of the past. We know that in the USA, 145 years ago slavery was abolished.  Many other countries had already abolished it before that. 

However, today there are still enslaved people. Slavery exists in our world for many reasons. It is mainly that powerful people can extract some gain or twisted pleasure from those in their power.  As divided as the churches are, let God be thanked that they can come together in campaigns to eliminate human trafficking around the world. 

In nations of great poverty, deceivers come with great promises of prosperity, and people believe them.  They leave their homes and when they arrive at that new place of promise, they find that the promise is vain, that they are enslaved.  They see that those who promised them so much have them prisoner, cheated and working without pay.

In Thailand, many women and boys and girls from the countryside are taken to the cities where they are prisoners for the exploitation of men who come even from other countries to take advantage of them, of their bodies, in prostitution.

We know also that there are people-traffickers who clandestinely bring immigrants to the US from place such as China and force them to work in hidden sweatshops from where they cannot leave, cannot speak with anyone, can do nothing but work for the profit of those who hold them captive. There are children in Pakistan who work 12 on more hours a day, whose parents have sold them to a contractor. They weave fine carpets, and the factory owners like to use children because their fingers are small and nimble and because they are easy to control.   

In the case of this enslaved girl, she was defenseless and vulnerable, and her owners exploited her.  When Paul and Silas challenged the enslavement, they suffered a similar fate.  They were also taken unjustly, sent to a place they did not want to go, and held against their will

How many people today suffer such a fate!  They are persecuted or imprisoned because of injustice. In Colombia, the South American nation that has made the least progress in improving the quality of life for its people in recent years, there is a war of the guerrillas against the government, repression by the armed forces and terror by right-wing paramilitary groups.

Ordinary people suffer greatly from all of this.  There is also a US-sponsored campaign to eradicate drugs, which has brought about destruction of many crops that have nothing to do with the drug trade. In many parts of Colombia, church workers have raised their voices to denounce this injustice.  In their turn they are persecuted, threatened, beaten and even killed.  Those who profit from the terrible situation want to silence them. 

There is a ministry by people of faith in the US who go to Colombia to accompany these church workers, to defend them, because they are lifting their voices against the injustice and working in the name of Christ to alleviate the situation. 

Paul and Silas could have spent the night waiting in fear for the morning and what it would bring, but they did not.  Instead, there in the prison they continued their testimony, praying and singing. The rest of the prisoners listened. Even in that situation, as the most isolated and most securely bound of the prisoners, the continued to encourage the others.

Nowadays there are organizations working through out the world for those who are imprisoned. Amnesty International investigates cases of prisoners and finds those who are held because they have worked for justice, not because of any crime. When they discover such a person, in any country, they begin to publicize their case. They encourage their members to write to the government of that country, whether it is Indonesia, Colombia, China or the United States – because there are victims here, too – and demand that the authorities give that person due process, and release them if they are not imprisoned for a fair reason. This work is important for carrying out God’s vision that every creature has worth and dignity.

When Jesus began his ministry, according to the Gospel of Luke, he read these famous words from the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has consecrated me to take good news to the poor and has sent me to announce liberty to the captives, give sight to the blind, and set at liberty the oppressed, to announce the year of God’s favor.”   

This was the mission of Jesus. As the church, as people who follow Jesus, this is our mission, too. We must do all that we can to work with other churches and other groups to help exploited women, to help people in prison. 

The enslaved girl who told fortunes, the apostles Paul and Silas, these are the obvious people that suffer under oppression in this story. Even in her oppressed state, the girl spoke by means of this spirit and recognized that Paul and Silas were, according to the text, “Slaves of the Most High God.”

There are many owners in this world.  The owners of the enslaved girl used her to make money. The chief rulers of the city who put Paul and Silas in Prison, the governors of the province, and the Emperor in Rome – all were slave owners. But the girl, through her quizzical prophecy, recognized that Paul and Silas were not ultimately subject to these owners, but rather that they had one master, Almighty God, the only one that deserves the titles of ownership, mastery, and authority.

Paul and Silas were not involuntary slaves; they had given themselves freely to the sovereignty of God. Thus they served the one who deserved their loyalty, with joy and gratitude. 

In this story there are others that were also enslaved, under control of another. Though it may not seem obvious, the ones who exploited the enslaved girl were enslaved by their greed and by the system that logically told them that as powerful people they should exploit this woman.

The jailer was enslaved. He was in a system of government that seemed to give him great power (the keys to the chains, the control of the prison). But when the chains came off and the prison doors opened, he was ready to kill himself. Why?  He thought that if the prisoners escaped, he would pay with his life. He would rather take it himself than be subjected to the tortures that would come to him.  He was enslaved in an oppressive system.

Nowadays if we speak of the women forced to work in the sex industries of Thailand, we also have to speak of the men who go as tourists, enslaved by their perversities and addictions, men who have taken God’s good gift and twisted it beyond recognition. If we look at those who imprison others for speaking out against injustice, we see they are enslaved to fear.

After 9-11, many people succumbed to fear even to the point of favoring torture of others in the chance that some information could be obtained that would help prevent a future terrorist attack. Fear is powerful and can enslave a whole population. Fear caused a nation to allow the military junta in Argentina to kidnap activists and throw them into the ocean from helicopters so they would drown.  The junta stole children from their parents, killed the parents, and gave the children to families where they would be raised to be like their parents’ killers.  The nation allowed it out of fear of the changes that might come if the repression ceased.

So the jailer came to the cell of Paul and Silas and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Who knows what he meant by that.  I think, since he did not know what Paul was about, he meant simply, “How am I going to survive and escape the punishment of this government?”

Many times people ask these questions, and when they want to be saved they have a very limited idea of what that means.  They do not know what they are asking, really. The jailer wanted to escape punishment. Perhaps someone comes to us with a similar question that means they want to be freed from an addiction, or from persecution, or from a difficult situation.  Or if they are thinking in broader terms, perhaps they simply want to escape punishment or condemnation.

The response from Paul is interesting.  They do not tell the jailer to turn in a report on the prison break, being careful to exonerate himself, or even better, to blame someone else. They say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus.”  This answer has three parts.

In the first place, believe. There is much teaching that emphasizes the importance of certain doctrines and how these are necessary for salvation, and that without these doctrines one is not saved.  But believing is much more than assenting to a set of words. Belief is a change in course, that is to say, “Given that I believe in Jesus, I am going to allow him to transform me, free me from enslavement, take me in his footsteps, and lead me to others who are enslaved so that we can work out our liberation.”

In the second place, believe in the Lord, as the first and ultimate authority in our lives – not the president, not the emperor, not the chief of police, but Jesus.  In the early church 2,000 years ago, this was the first affirmation: “Jesus is Lord.”  Kyrios in Greek, the title the Emperor used, the title the owners of the enslaved girl used, the title the jailed used when he rushed into the prison and addressed Paul and Silas.  But they affirmed there is only one Kyrios. Follow the one that deserves your loyalty.” 

In the third place, believe in the Lord Jesus.  Do not believe in just any Lord, but in a very specific Lord.  Believe in the Lord from Galilee, who took his mission from Isaiah.  Believe in that Lord!  Believe in that Lord of compassion, of love, who comes to bring good news to the poor, who was sent by God to announce liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, and to proclaim the favorable year of God.

Believe in that Lord and you will be saved, you and your family, because salvation is collective. It’s not about “you and me, God, you and me.” When Peter responded to the question from jesus and affirmed “You are the Christ, sent from God,” Jesus did not say, “Good, Peter! You get a passing grade! Congratulations, you are saved!”  Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.”  Salvation is for the community, for the cosmos, for the world, for all creation.  This is the saving work of Jesus the Christ.

That jailer offered his hospitality, just as in the previous passage we saw Lydia offering her home.  He gave his home, his welcome, his food, the companionship of his family, for Paul and Silas.  He did this in response to what he had received, not as a payment, but with gratitude.

There is much enslavement in the world; but when there is freedom, and when as a church we struggle for freedom, we see a great response to our mission, a response that confirms in each person the reality of Jesus and his redeeming work.

Sermon 16 de mayo 2010

May 25, 2010

Texto: Hechos 16:16-34

Sigue el relato que escuchamos la semana pasada.  Pablo y sus compañeros han llegado a Filipos, ciudad romana en Grecia, en su trabajo misionero por primera vez en Europa.  Se encontraron con Lidia, mercader de ricas telas de púrpura, y ella les obligó a quedarse en su casa.

En este relato vemos personas oprimidas, personas que sufren, que están bajo control de otros.  En primer lugar, obviamente, la mujer, la muchacha esclavizada de la cual otros sacaban provecho.  Dice el texto, “Ella tenía espíritu de una serpiente.”  En Grecia había un lugar donde haba gran serpiente, y la gente llegaba allá para preguntar acerca de su propia suerte, y se creía que la serpiente era sabia y podía indicarle a la gente lo que iba a pasarles.  LA gente encargada daba las interpretaciones, pero la gente creía que las respuestas venían de la serpiente.  Jesús dijo, “Sean ustedes tan mansos como palomas y tan sabios como serpientes.”  Era un símbolo del conocimiento, de la sabiduría que estaba oculta de las masas de la gente.

Esta mujer con espíritu que la hacía profetizar era muy útil para aquéllos que la habían esclavizado.  En aquellos tiempos una persona podía ser esclava por muchos motivos diferentes, a veces por ser cautivos de guerra, a veces por tener una gran deuda que no la podían pagar.  En otros casos, nacían niños o niñas en una familia esclavizada. No sabemos por qué esta muchacha quedó esclavizada, pero habían sacado mucha ganancia de ella.

Vemos también a Pablo y Silas en la prisión, en el cepo incómodo donde no podían ni moverse, con las piernas sujetadas, a la misericordia del carcelero, de las autoridades, y del grupo que los había atacado.

Personas oprimidas, que están sufriendo injusticia y maltrato.  No sólo es una historia del pasado.  Sabemos que en este país, hace 145 años que se abolió la esclavitud.  Muchos países ya habían abolido la esclavitud a esa altura. 

Sin embargo, hoy día aún hay gente esclava.  La esclavitud existe en nuestro mundo por muchos motivos.  Es principalmente porque hay gente poderosa que puede sacar de su víctima una ganancia o un torcido placer. Gracias a Dios que aún tan divididas las iglesias, en este caso han podido unirse en campañas para acabar con la esclavitud a nivel mundial

En países donde hay mucha pobreza, llega gente con grandes promesas de prosperidad, y la gente se cree.  Sale de su lugar y cuando llegan a ese nuevo lugar de promesa se dan cuenta que es vana la promesa, que es esclavitud.  Ven que aquéllos que les prometieron tanto, los tiene engañados, presos, y los ponen a hacer trabajo sin pago.

En Tailandia, muchas mujeres campesinas, y niños y niñas, que son llevadas a la ciudad donde son prisioneras, para el eso de hombres que vienen hasta de otros países para hacer uso de ellas, de sus cuerpos, en la prostitución.

También sabemos que hay “gente-traficantes”, personas que traen a escondidas a los inmigrantes de lugares como China, y los obligan a trabajar en fábricas ocultas de done no pueden salir, ni hablar con nadie, sino solamente trabajan por la ganancia de los que los tienen presos.  Hay niños y niñas que trabajan en Pakistán 12 horas al día, y sus padres los han vendido a contratistas. Tejen alfombras y a los dueños les gusta usar niños porque tienen los dedos pequeños para tejer y no pueden resistir.

El caso de esta muchacha: por su situación, por estar indefensa y vulnerable, ella fue explotada por estos dueños.  Al desafiar esa situación de esclavitud, Pablo y Silas sufrieron una suerte muy parecida.  También ellos fueron arrebatados injustamente, fueron llevados a un lugar a donde no querían ir, fueron sujetados contra su voluntad.

¡Cuántas personas hay hoy día que viven esa suerte!  Son perseguidos o encarcelados por una situación injusta.  En Colombia, que entre los países suramericanos menos ha podido mejorar el nivel de vida para sus residentes en años recientes, hay una guerra – guerrilla en contra del gobierno, represión de parte de las fuerzas armadas y los escuadrones de muerte.   

La gente ordinaria campesina sufre mucho por esto.  Hay también una campaña para erradicar las drogas, que ha traído destrucción de muchas cosechas que no son parte del narcotráfico.   En muchos lugares de Colombia, trabajadores de las iglesias levantan su voz para denunciar esta injusticia, y a su vez sufren persecución, amenazas, golpes y hasta muerte.  La gente que saca ganancia de esto quiere silenciarles.

Hay un ministerio de gente creyente en este país que va a Colombia para acompañar a aquéllos trabajadores y trabajadoras de las iglesias, para defenderles, porque están levantando la voz en contra de la injusticia y trabajando en nombre de Jesucristo para  aliviar la situación. 

Pablo y Silas bien pudieran haber pasado la noche esperando temerosos lo que había de venir por la mañana, pero no lo hicieron.  En cambio, allá en la cárcel continuaron su testimonio, orando y cantando.  El resto de los prisioneros estaban escuchando.  Aún en esa situación, siendo ellos los presos más aislados y sujetados, siguieron animando a los demás.

Hoy día hay organismos que trabajan a nivel global a favor de los que están presos.  Amnistía Internacional indaga los casos de presos y hallan personas que están en la prisión por haber hablado a favor de la justicia, y no por ningún delito.  Cuando se dan cuenta de tal persona, en cualquier país, empiezan a publicar denuncias.  Animan a sus miembros a que escriban al gobierno de aquel país, sea Indonesia, sea Colombia, sea China, sea Estados Unidos, porque también hay víctimas aquí, a exigirles a las autoridades que esa persona reciba un proceso justo, y si no debe estar en la prisión, que se le dé la libertad.  Es trabajo muy importante para levar a cabo la visión que tiene Dios de la dignidad de cada una de sus criaturas.

Cuando inició Jesús su ministerio, según el Evangelio de Lucas, leyó del profeta Isaías las famosas palabras: “El Espíritu del Señor está sobre mí porque me ha consagrado para llevar la buena noticia a los pobres; me ha enviado para anunciar libertad a los presos, dar vista a los ciegos, poder en libertad a los oprimidos, anunciar el año favorable del Señor.”

Esta era la misión de Jesús y como iglesia, gente que sigue a Jesús, es nuestra misión también.   Todo lo que se pueda hacer en colaboración entre iglesias o con otros grupos debe hacerse para ayudar a esas mujeres explotadas, a esa gente que sufre la cárcel.

La muchacha esclavizada que hacía adivinanzas, los apóstoles Pablo y Silas, obviamente sufren opresión en este relato.  Aún esa muchacha en su situación oprimida al hablar por ese espíritu, reconoció que Pablo y Silas eran, según el texto, esclavos del Dios Altísimo.

Hay muchos amos en este mundo.  Los amos de la muchacha la usaban para ganarse dinero.  Los jefes de la ciudad que metieron a Pablo y Silas en la cárcel, los gobernantes superiores de la provincia, y el emperador de Roma, todos tenían esclavos.  Pero la muchacha, en su torcida profecía, reconoció que Pablo y Silas no estaban sujetos a estas autoridades, sino que tenían un solo amo, que es Dios Altísimo, el único que merece en verdad el título de Amo, de Señor, de Dueño.

No era una esclavitud involuntaria la de Pablo y Silas, sino que se habían entregado libremente, reconociendo la soberanía de Dios.  Y así servían con gozo y gratitud a un Amo que merecía su lealtad. 

Hay otros también, en este relato, que estaban en esclavitud, bajo control de una fuerza ajena.  Aunque sea difícil creerlo, los dueños de la muchacha eran esclavos también, privados de su libertad, bajo control ajeno.  Estos dueños que oprimían a aquella muchacha eran esclavos de su propia avaricia, y de un sistema que insistía que ellos, siendo poderosos, siendo dueños, explotaran a esta mujer.

El carcelero también era esclavo. Estaba dentro de un sistema de gobierno que aunque parecía darle mucho poder (las llaves de las cadenas, el control de la prisión), al darse cuenta de que las cadenas se soltaron y las puertas se abrieron, quiso matarse.  ¿Por qué?  Sentía que si los presos se escaparan, él pagaría con su vida.  Quiso quitársela él mismo y no sufrir las torturas que habían de venir sobre él.  Era esclavo de un sistema opresor.

Hoy día si hablamos de la mujeres obligadas a trabajar en la industria sexual en Tailandia, tenemos que hablar de los hombres que van de turistas a Tailandia, que son esclavos de sus perversidades y sus adicciones, que han tomado el don que Dios ha dado para bien y lo han torcido.  Si miramos a los que encarcelan a la gente que denuncian la injusticia, vemos que viven el temor.

Vimos cómo en EEUU, a raíz del 9-11, mucha gente se dejó llevar por el temor hasta estar a favor de torturar a otros por la posibilidad de sacarles alguna información sobre actividades terroristas y prevenirlas antes de que ocurrieran.  El temor es poderoso y puede esclavizar a toda una población.  El temor permitió que la junta militar en Argentina secuestrara a activistas y los echara desde un helicóptero para ahogarlos en el mar. La junta robaba a los niños de sus padres, mataba a los padres y ponía a los niños en otra familia donde los criaba la misma gente asesina.   La gente lo permitió por el miedo a algún cambio que pudiera venir al país si cesara la represión.

Llega el carcelero a la celda donde están Pablo y Silas y dice, “¿Qué debo hacer para salvarme?”  No sabemos qué quería decir con eso. Creo que él, sin saber de lo que traía Pablo, simplemente preguntaba, “¿Cómo voy a salvarme del castigo de este gobierno?”

Muchas veces la gente hace esas preguntas, y cuando quiere salvarse tiene una idea muy limitada.   No sabe todo lo que pide.  El carcelero quería salvarse del castigo.  Quizá la persona que se nos acerca tiene una pregunta parecida, de salvarse de su adicción, o de una persecución, o una dificultad.  O si acaso está hablando de algo mayor, muchas veces se preocupan simplemente por escaparse del castigo, de no sufrir la condena.

Qué interesante que digan “salvarme”, como si fuera nuestra propia obra.  La respuesta de Pablo y Silas es interesante.  No dice que el carcelero tiene que ir a rendir un informe a los oficiales sobre lo ocurrido, para evitar la culpa o echarla a otro – nada de eso.

“Cree en el Señor Jesús.” Fue la respuesta de Pablo y Silas. Esta frase tiene 3 partes.

En primer lugar, creer. Hay mucha enseñanza que dice que el estar de acuerdo con ciertas doctrinas es lo necesario para la salvación, y que sin esas doctrinas uno no es salvo.  Pero el creer es mucho más que afirmar una doctrina.  El creer es un cambio en nuestro trayecto; es decir, “Dado que creo en Jesús, voy a permitir que me transforme, que me libre de la esclavitud, que me lleva a otras personas esclavizadas para trabajar por su libertad, que me lleve en sus pasos.”

En segundo lugar, creer en el Señor, que sea la primera y la última autoridad en nuestra vida – no el emperador, no el presidente, no el jefe de policía, sino Jesús.  Hace 2,000 años, fue la primera afirmación de la iglesia: “Jesús es Señor.”  Kyrios en el griego, el título que usaba el emperador, el título que usaban los amos de la muchacha esclavizada, y es el título que usó el carcelero cuando entró miedoso a la cárcel, “Señores, ¿qué debo hacer para salvarme?”  Pero ellos afirmaron que sólo hay un Kyrios.  Sigue a aquél que sólo es digno de tu lealtad.

En tercer lugar, cree en el Señor Jesús.  No creas en cualquier Señor, sino en un Señor muy específico.  Cree en el Señor de Galilea, que del libro de Isaías sacó su misión, lo que tenía que hacer.  ¡Cree en ese Señor!  Cree en ese Señor de compasión, de amor, que viene a traer la buena noticia a los pobres, que ha sido enviado por Dios a anunciar libertad a los presos, que ha venido a dar vista a los ciegos, que ha venido a anunciar el año favorable de Dios.

Cree en ese Señor y serás salvo, tú y tu familia, porque la salvación es colectiva.  No consiste en “Tú y yo, Señor, tú y yo.”  Cuando Pedro respondió a la pregunta de Jesús y afirmó, “Tú eres el Mesías, el Hijo de Dios,” Jesús no le dijo, “¡Qué bueno, Pedro, ya aprobaste el examen, felicidades, eres salvo!”   ¿Qué dijo?  “Sobre esta roca edificaré mi iglesia.”  La salvación es colectiva, la salvación es del cosmos, del mundo, de la creación.  Esa fue la obra salvífica que vino a hacer Jesucristo.

Y ese hombre ofreció su hospitalidad, como vimos en el pasaje anterior con Lidia, al recibir el mensaje del evangelio, ofreció su hogar y su bienvenida, sus alimentos, el compañerismo de su familia, para Pablo y Silas.  Fue en respuesta a la salvación que había recibido, no para pagar, sino por gratitud a Dios.

Son muchas las esclavitudes en el mundo, pero cuando hay libertad, y cuando como iglesia luchamos por la libertad, hemos de ver una gran respuesta a nuestra misión, que confirmará en toda persona la realidad de Jesús y su obra redentora.

Sermon 9 de mayo de 2010

May 15, 2010

Hechos 16:6-15

Un relato que ocurre durante un viaje misionero del Apóstol Pablo y sus compañeros.

Un poco antes leímos un pasaje del libro de los Proverbios (31:10 y 24-31) sobre la mujer que es admirable por su trabajo, por su integridad, por su carácter.  El pasaje viene al fin de Proverbios y habla de la mujer ideal, que maneja bien su casa y su negocio.  A pesar de esa visión, en los tiempos de la Biblia las Mujeres no eran muy tomadas en cuenta.  Muchas veces a ellas se les relegaba a una posición muy inferior a la del hombre.  Incluso muchas culturas la mujer se consideraba como propiedad, entre todas las cosas que poseía un hombre.

Sin embargo, la visión en proverbios es de una mujer responsable, que toma en sus manos las cosas que hacen falta y las prepara.   Tal sería la visión de la mujer que se llama Lidia, con quien se encontró Pablo en la ciudad de Filipos. 

Cuando empezó la iglesia, era un grupo de personas de la misma raza de Jesús, todas judías, personas que al proclamar a Jesús como Mesías, tenían en mente que era el enviado para un pueblo, los suyos.  Este Mesías había de venir a conducir a su pueblo a una posición superior en el mundo. Dios traería bendición al resto de la humanidad, pero por medio de los judíos.

A medida que pasaba el tiempo, se dieron cuenta que había que buscar a otras personas también.    Antes mencionamos la visita de Pedro a Cesarea, y la reacción de los judíos creyentes que estaban en Jerusalén cuando lo supieron y lo criticaron.

Así también cuando Pablo empezó su ministerio, había mucho desacuerdo entre las iglesias en cuanto a quiénes deberían de llevar el mensaje de la buenas noticias del amor de Dios.  Generalmente lo que hacía Pablo era visitar los lugares de adoración donde se reunían los judíos, aunque fuera en una ciudad extranjera.  En sus viajes anduvo por muchas partes de la Provincia de Asia proclamando  este mensaje, pero siempre llegando a la sinagoga en donde se reunían los judíos en el día de descanso.

Algo muy interesante ocurre para que lleguen a Filipos.  Están viajando por la Provincia de Asia y no pueden por algún motivo entrar ni a Bitinia, ni Frigia, ni Galacia, ni Misia, que son partes del país actual de Turquía.  En todos esos lugares hubo indicación, no sabemos cómo, que no debían de ir a allí y hacer trabajo misionero.  Algo les indicó que no debían de estar allí.  Finalmente cuando llegaron a la antigua ciudad de Tróade, Pablo tuvo un sueño de un hombre que decía “Ven a ayudarnos”.  Estaba en otro continente, en Europa, en Macedonia, que hoy día es Grecia, país desconocido para Pablo y sus amigos.  Sin embargo, al día siguiente salieron para allá. 

Llegaron finalmente a la ciudad de Filipos.  Y allí tenían que buscar una manera nueva de trabajar, porque no hallaron una sinagoga, u otro edificio donde se reunieran los judíos.  Pero un rumor les dejó saber que el día de descanso por la mañana iba un grupo al río a reunirse y orar.

Entonces Pablo y sus compañeros fueron para allá y sí hallaron como les habían dicho, mayormente un grupo de mujeres.  No sabemos si en Filipos siendo colonia romana, había mucha persecución de los judíos o si la gente les miraba mal, pero era una mayoría de mujeres que se reunían allí. Quizá los hombres tenían miedo, o no querían arriesgar su posición en la sociedad y por eso no llegaban a ese lagar de oración. O quizá no consideraban que la ribera fuera un lugar digno para adorar a Dios en el campo abierto.

Entre las mujeres, había una por lo menos que ni siquiera era judía.  Era de otra raza, ajena, pero que era creyente en Dios.  Las personas creyentes en Dios que no eran judías tenían que pasar por un proceso para ser recibidas como parte del pueblo de Dios, y ella no había tomado esos pasos.   Quizá pensaba que con creer en Dios, era suficiente. No había tomado los pasos para formalizar su membresía entre los judíos.  Pero seguía reuniéndose en ese lugar en el día de descanso.

Esta no era una mujer cualquiera. La tela de púrpura en tiempos antiguos era muy costosa.  Para crearla hacía falta recolectar muchos moluscos pequeñísimos del mar, moluscos que producen un tinte con el cual se tiñen las telas.   Por ser tan difícil de obtener los moluscos, y tan grande la cantidad necesaria de moluscos para producir el tinte, cuesta mucho la tela teñida de esa manera.

Lidia era comerciante de esta tela, mujer de mucha influencia. La Biblia no menciona que tuviera marido.   Parece que ella era la que manejaba ese negocio.

Había llegado ese día a la ribera del río esperando un tiempo de oración.  ¡Qué sorpresa que hubo visitas.  Pablo se puso a hablar con ellas, a platicar acerca de este Mesías, el prometido de Dios que había venido, Jesús de Nazaret.  Entre más hablaba Pablo, más sintió Lidia algo diferente, algo nuevo, algo importante para su vida.  Aunque no se había comprometido totalmente a la fe hasta ese momento, dice la Biblia que el Espíritu la impulsó a escuchar.

Cuántas cosas pudieran haber pasado para impedir ese encuentro entre Lidia y Pablo.  Como hemos visto, Pablo quería ir a otros lugares que tenía pensado visitar, y en su lista no estaba la ciudad de Filipos. Pero de alguna manera él llego a ese lugar.  Cuántas cosas pudieran haber impedido que Lidia estuviera allí.  No era de esa raza, de esa fe, de esa creencia, pero llegó ese día a ese lugar también.

Tenemos que concluir que era el Espíritu de Dios que estaba actuando en este caso.  El autor del libro lo menciona una y otra vez.  El 16:6, el Espíritu Santo los mandó a otro lugar.  En 16:7, el Espíritu de Jesús los prohibió entrar a otro lugar.  En 16:9, Pablo tuvo una visión para ir a un nuevo lugar.  Y en 16:14, mientras Lidia escuchaba las palabras de Pablo, el Señor la movió a aceptar lo que decía.  

Y finalmente, Lidia también puso a prueba la creencia de Pablo y sus compañeros: “Si creen ustedes que verdaderamente soy creyente, vengan a quedarse en mi casa.”  Ofreció su casa como la base para el trabajo en esa ciudad.  No sabemos cuáles pudieran haber sido las consecuencias de eso, si la gente se ofendiera, si Lidia perdiera negocio por eso.  Ella, sin tomar en cuenta todo eso, ofreció su casa con una gran hospitalidad.  Así como Pablo y sus compañeros la habían recibido a la fe en Cristo Jesús, así ella los recibió en su casa.

La visión de Dios para nuestra vida y nuestro trabajo no necesariamente va de acuerdo con nuestros planes.  A veces como seres humanos tenemos la idea de lo que vamos a hacer.  Pensamos que ésta es la mejor forma de lograr las cosas.   Siempre hay que tomar en cuenta la posibilidad de que Dios tiene otros planes para nuestra vida, algo diferente a lo que nosotros hemos construido como lo que va a ocurrir.

Y hay otra enseñanza también, que la aprendió Pablo junto con sus compañeros.  Cuando uno quiere servir a Dios, uno no va a actuar necesariamente para cumplir sus propios deseos.  Si uno quiere responder al llamado de Dios, y llevar a cabo la comisión que Dios le haya encomendado, hay que mirar la necesidad que exista ene. Mundo.  ¿Qué es lo que hace falta?  ¿Qué busca la gente?  ¿Qué necesita la gente?  De esa manera buscamos la voluntad de Dios, tratando de divisar en la cara de la persona que está a nuestro lado, la faz de Jesús, tratando de buscar la manera en la cual Dios responde en esta situación, y luego tomar los pasos para seguir con Dios de la misma manera.

La hospitalidad que ofreció Lidia a Pablo y sus compañeros era algo que ella pudo ofrecer.  Y cuando salimos al mundo para llevar a cabo lo que Dios nos haya encomendado, no es que nosotros simplemente llevemos algo para dar, sino que también salimos esperando lo que hemos de recibir.  El lugar a donde vayamos, aunque no hayamos estado allá, es un lugar donde Dios ya está.  Cuando Pablo  y Lucas y los otros cruzaron el mar y llegaron a Grecia y entraron a Europa y estuvieron en un lugar nuevo, pudieran haber pensado, “Estamos llegando aquí y trayendo a Dios a este pueblo, pero no.  Dios ya estaba en ese pueblo. Dios ya estaba trabajando, obrando en el corazón de la gente.  Fue Dios quien impulsó a las mujeres a llegar al río, donde se encontraron con Pablo.  Fue Dios quien movió el corazón de Lidia y la preparó ara recibir un mensaje mayor de parte de Pablo.    Dios ya estaba actuando allá. 

Cuando salimos a responder a las necesidades del mundo, sabemos que vamos a encontrar allí no sólo una misión para nosotros sino también que vamos a recibir de parte de la gente a quienes encontramos y de parte de Dios.  Es un caminar donde nos lleva Dios a su lado, desarrollándonos.  Y es por eso que no sirve la excusa de decir, “No puedo salir en misión de Dios, porque no he alcanzado el nivel necesario.  No es excusa válida, porque Dios nos lleva y nos prepara y nos da lo que necesitamos, y aun en esa experiencia nos sigue enseñando, nos sigue animando, nos sigue dirigiendo. 

El tema central de este pasaje no es una serie de coincidencias, no es algo que debe de sorprendernos.  Es la acción del Espíritu de Dios.  Cuando Dios actuó en Pablo y Lucas y sus compañeros, y en Lidia y en esas mujeres, todos crecieron y todos aprendieron.  Cuando Lidia dio su invitación, ellos pudieran haber respondido, “No, no podemos hacer eso. Tenemos que buscar una casa de gente de nuestra raza, de nuestra religión. No podemos quedar aquí.”

¿A quién aceptamos?  ¿A quién recibimos como parte del cuerpo de Cristo?  La Iglesia Unida de Cristo tiene el lema, que lo repasamos con los niños esta mañana: “Sea quien seas, y dondequiera que estés en el camino de la vida, aquí tienes una bienvenida.”  Y no es una bienvenida que damos simplemente porque somos buena gente.  Es una bienvenida que podemos ofrecer porque hemos recibido la bienvenida de Dios, quien con los brazos abiertos nos ha invitado a ser parte de su familia, parte de su reino, parte de su ministerio sobre la tierra.

“Sea quien seas, y dondequiera que estés en el camino de la vida, en esta iglesia, en nombre de Jesucristo, tienes una bienvenida” —  para llegar, para ser recibida, para ser recibido, y para salir de este lugar y llevar a los confines de la tierra esa paz, esa hospitalidad, ese amor que Dios n

Sermon May 9 2010

May 15, 2010

Acts 16:6-15

A story that happens during a mission journey by the Apostle Paul and his fellow-travelers.

A little before this we read a passage from the book of Proverbs (31:10 y 24-31) about a woman who is admirable for her work, her integrity and her character. The passage comes at the end of Proverbs and speaks of an ideal woman who manages her house and her business well. Despite this vision, in bible times women were often not taken seriously.  Many times they were relegated to a position inferior to that of men. In many cultures they were considered a man’s property, among the many other things he owned.

However, the vision in Proverbs is of a responsible woman, who takes into her hands the things she needs and prepares them. This would be a vision of Lydia, the woman that Paul met in the city of Philippi. 

When the church began, they were a group of people similar to each other, all of the same ethnicity as Jesus. They proclaimed Jesus as Messiah and they had in mind that he was sent to them and their people.  This Messiah was to come and lead his people to a superior place in the world.  God would bless the nations, but it would be by blessing the Jews.

As time passed, they realized that they had to reach out to others as well. We have already mentioned the visit of Peter to Cesarea and the reaction of the believers in Jerusalem when they knew of it and criticized him.

Also, when Paul began his ministry, there was much discord among the churches as to who should receive the good news of God’s love.  Generally, Paul would visit the places of worship where the Jews met, even when he was in a Gentile city. In his journeys he went through many parts of the province of Asia proclaiming the message, but he always went to the synagogue where the Jews met on the Sabbath.

Something interesting happened in order for them to arrive in Philippi. They were traveling through the Roman province of Asia and for some reason they could net go to Bithynia, or Phrygia, or Galatia, or Mysia, which are all part of modern Turkey. In all these places there was an indication, we do not know what, that they should not go there and do their mission work.  Something told them not to go.  Finally when they arrived in Troy, Paul had a vision, a dream of a man who said “Come help us.” He was on another continent, in Europe, in Macedonia which today is Greece, a land unknown to Paul and his companions. But the next day they set out for that place. 

Finally they arrive at Philippi.  There they had to look for a new way to work, because they did not find a synagogue or any other building where the Jews gathered. But a rumor came to them that on the Sabbath a group would go to the river to meet and pray.

The Paul and his companions went there and found it as had been told them, mainly a group of women. We do not know whether in Philippi as a Roman city, there was persecution of the Jews, or whether they were seen in a bad light, but the majority of people meeting were women.  Maybe the men were afraid, or maybe they did not want to risk their position in society ad so they did not go to the place of prayer.  Or maybe they did not consider the riverbank, out in the open, a decent place to gather for prayer.

Among the women, there was at least one who was not Jewish. She was of another race, an alien, but she was a God-fearing person. Such people who were not Jews had to go through a process to be received as the people of God, and she had not taken those steps. Maybe she thought that to believe in God was enough. She had not formalized her membership among the Jews. But she continued to meet on the Sabbath in that place. 

This was no ordinary woman.  The purple cloth in ancient times was a luxury item. To make it, first many tiny mollusks had to be collected from the sea, shellfish from which the dye was made. It was difficult to collect the shellfish, and they were so small that a great many were needed to make the dye, so that dying cloth this color was very expensive. 

Lydia was a dealer in this cloth, a woman of great influence.  This Bible does not mention a husband. It seems that she was in charge of this business.

That day she had come to the riverbank expecting a time of prayer.  What a surprise that there were visitors! Paul began to speak with them about this Messiah, the Promised One of God who had come, Jesus of Nazareth. The more Paul spoke, the more Lydia felt something different, something new, something important in her life. Though she had not made a complete commitment to faith until that moment, the bible says that the Spirit impelled her to listen.

Many things could have happened to prevent this encounter of Lydia and Paul. As we have seen, Paul wished to go to other places to visit, and Philippi was not on his list. But in some way he arrived at this place.  Many things could have prevented Lydia from being at the riverbank that day.  She was not of that race, or that faith, or that belief, but she came that day as well.

We have to conclude that the Spirit of god was acting in this case.  The authors of Acts mentions it again and again. In 16:6, the Holy Spirit sent them to another place.  In 16:7, the Spirit of Jesus prohibited them from going to another place. In 16:9, Paul had a vision of going to a new place. And in 16:14, while Lydia listened to Paul’s words, the Lord moved her to accept what he said.  

And finally, Lydia also put Paul’s belief to the test, as she said to him and his companions, “If you believe that I am truly a believer, come to stay in my house.” She offered her home as the base for their work in that city.  We do not know what consequences resulted from that decision, whether people were offended, whether Lydia lost business for that. She did not take that into account but offered her house and hospitality. As Paul and his companions had welcomed her into the faith in Jesus, so she welcomed them into her home.

The vision God has for our lives and our work does not necessarily fit our plans.  Sometimes as humans we have the idea of what we are going to do.  We think this is the best way to achieve something.  We always have to allow that God may have other plans for our life, something different from what we had constructed as the future

There is another teaching here, too, that Paul and his companions learned. When one wants to serve God, one does not always begin with one’s own wishes. If one wants to respond to God’s calling, and carry out the mission that God has given, one has to look at the need that exists in the world. What is lacking?  What are people seeking? What do they need? In that way we seek the will of God, trying to discern in the face of the  person beside the face of Jesus, trying to seek the way that God responds in this situation, and taking the steps to follow God in the same way.

The hospitality that Lydia offered to Paul and his companions was what she had to give. And when we go into the world to carry out what God has entrusted to us, it is not simply that we take something to give; we also go out expecting to receive. The place to which we go is a place where God is already present. When Paul and Luke and the others arrived in Greece and entered Europe, they could have been thinking “We are bringing God to these people.”  But that was not the case.  God was already there. God was already at work in the hearts of the people. It was God who brought the women to the riverbank where they encountered Paul. It was God who moved Lydia’s heart and prepared her to receive a greater message from Paul.  God was already there. 

When we go out to respond to the needs of the world, we know that we will find not only a mission for us but also that we will receive something from the people we encounter and from God. It is a journey in which God travels by our side, developing us.  That is why it is useless to make the excuse that “I can’t serve God because I have not reached the level I need.”  The excuse is not valid, because God takes us and God prepares us and gives us what we need, and even then continues to teach us, encourage us, and direct us. 

The central theme of this passage is not a series of coincidences, nor is it something that should surprise us. It is the action of God’s Spirit. When God acted in Paul and Luke and the others, and in Lydia and the other women, they all grew and they all learned. When Lydia gave her invitation, they could have answered, “No, we can’t do that.  We must look for a house with people like us, of our race, of our religion.  We cannot stay here.” 

Who do we accept? Who do we receive as part of the body of Christ?  The United Church of Christ has a saying, “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”   It is not a welcome that we give just because we are nice people.  It is a welcome that we can offer because we have been welcomed by God, with open arms, to be part of God’s family, part of God’s reign, part of God’s ministry on the earth.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, in this church, in the name of Jesus the Christ, you are welcome here; to come, to be received, to go from this place to the ends of the earth with the peace, the hospitality, the love that God has given us.

Sermon April 18, 2010 – Acts 11:1-18

May 4, 2010

In the period when the books of the Bible were written, there were no paper factories.  Parchment was used for many books, and paper was not wasted.  The arduous process of making pages meant that whatever was written had to worth writing down.

Given this fact, one has to ask why the author of the book of Acts repeats, in two successive chapters, the story of what Peter experienced on the rooftop in Joppa. It seems a waste of material to explain what happened to Peter when he had the vision of the great sheet full of animals and then in the next chapter to put the whole story, with nearly all the details, in Peter’s mouth as he speaks before the Jewish believers in Jerusalem who criticized him for having had fellowship with the people in Caesarea.

It seems that the author’s purpose was not to bore us with repetition.  It was rather to show the power of this story in the controversy. Standing before that informal judgment, Peter could have defended himself with arguments and logic, with theological propositions, with all kinds of presentations.

Debate has its place, and theology is important.  But in this case, Peter was dealing with something so visceral, with such strong prejudices, reinforced by centuries of tradition, that he recognized the uselessness of argument. He needed other means to communicate such a radical reality, so opposed to popular wisdom.

Through story, Peter invited his critics to walk with him through the experience he had lived a few days before. From there, he could begin with them where they were, where he had been the day that he climbed to the rooftop in Joppa. With them, he walked in amazement through that vision.  With them, he looked with disgust at the animals that he was told to kill and eat. With them he answered, protesting that he had never allowed such filth to pass his lips. With them he heard three times the voice saying to him, “What God has made pure, you shall not call impure.”

He invited his listeners to hear the invitation he received from a Gentile, an officer of the oppressor’s army, to come to his home and speak to him of God. And with him, the listeners were witnesses of what happened, such an unexpected thing, when those repugnant strangers received a blessing, not by human action, not through the believers, but directly from God’s Spirit.

We like to live in certainty, but life is not like that.  Life is a pathway.  Life is a journey. Life is something we walk step by step with God.

We go along learning from experiences and from the experiences of others when they tell us about them with respect but with conviction. What Peter had at that moment was the conviction that he had done the right thing. He was convinced that when he took that step, to go with those men to that alien house and speak there of God’s love, he did what God wanted him to do.   

He had lived that conviction, with his six companions who went with him.  He had seen the outcome of that visit, how those people had their lives transformed because of his willingness to go to an unknown place, a strange place, a place that perhaps brought some fear to him for many reasons.  But when he acted in that way, he saw the outcomes.

And when he came to Jerusalem and people began to scold him for what he had done, he could do nothing else than speak with the conviction of his life and his experience of how God had taken him step by step in faith to that moment.

When we face controversy, perhaps the last thing we want to do is expose ourselves in this manner. I feel safer putting forth my ideas, my arguments, my declarations, to convince people.  But I do not want to put myself out there, or speak of my experiences, or what I have learned in life, of what God is teaching me step by step. That is scary to us, right?  That’s about testimony, not just ideas.   

If we give testimony, it may be rejected.  And if someone rejects our testimony, we feel they are rejecting us. That’s why it is risky to speak of our experiences, simply to say what we have lived and lived through, walking with God.  But that is what God has called us to do, and that is what Peter did in this case, with great results. As it says in Acts 11:18, the skeptics in Jerusalem heard these things and were silent. They could not contradict what Peter had lived in that moment.

If we think about it, this is the reality of Jesus Christ among us. When God wanted to communicate in a concrete and clear way, it was not by another book, or by a message, or by a letter.  It was by the Son, who lived, walked, experienced all of our life, and invited us to walk in faith as he walked, seeking the guidance of the Spirit, trusting in God, loving his neighbor and doing good to all. This is what God did, giving testimony among us through Jesus Christ. 

We each have had the experience of seeing how God has carried us through difficult times. Perhaps we do not see it at the moment it is happening. Many times it is when we look back that we realize, as a new way of knowing, that in a difficult place God was with us, walking by our side, helping us to make it through.    

It is beautiful to remember such times and to say, “Yes, God was with me, was guiding me, was helping me, was sustaining me, was supporting me, was strengthening me, was teaching me in that moment.” How much more beautiful it is to face a challenge knowing that God is with us, knowing that God is faithful, knowing that God loves us, knowing that in this situation we will seek with God the best way through.  That is walking in faith.  Faith looks back.  Faith looks forward.

In these days we will, as a church, be looking back and forward.  Some months ago we committed ourselves to walking with the Summer Collegium, and one thing we promised was to study together, speaking and reflecting. In a few days we will begin a project of reflection in which we will think about the history of our particular community of faith.  We will look back at the history of this church, but not just to say “What lovely times those were.”  We will also discern God’s action and presence in the past, in order to look to the future and ask, “Now, in view of all that, what is God calling us to in the future?” We will take steps of faith by not only recalling the past but also anticipating the future.

Those believers in Jerusalem were in a shaky situation.  They were few, they were marginalized, they lived in a small border area of the great and powerful Roman Empire. We are not in their situation, but we are also depending on God’s power to guide us and carry us forward in the vision that God has for us as a church and individually as well.

For Peter, his experience was not just a new mission for the church. It was not just a way for the church to grow and expand into new areas, to people who did not know God.    

It was also a road of transformation for him, and it was not an easy road. Don’t think this was easy for Peter.  We known, reading an account by the apostle Paul, that after some time Peter stumbled.  At a later time, Peter was with some Gentiles and ate with them, but when a group arrived from the Jerusalem contingent, Peter was afraid of their criticism and drew back from the Gentiles. So do not think that Peter is the great hero of this story.  The hero of this story of the Spirit of God who invites us and helps us to walk in new paths of transformation.    

And let us not forget the power of testimony.  Much of what we do when we meet as the faith community is to tell one another of God’s faithfulness. That is why in this church we invite testimonies during the prayers of the people. That is why even when we are not in worship settings, we try to speak of the things that God is doing in the world and in our lives.  That is how we encourage one another.    

Testimony shared among the community has its test.  The community receives the testimony and sees whether it is beneficial to the body. That is why each of us seeks our path in reference to the others.  From the beginning, the church has been a community project, not one of isolated individuals.

The Bible itself is more than anything a great collection of testimonies. In the Bible we do not find much philosophy, or much speculation.  There is poetry in books such as the Psalms, but even many of these are testimonials. Most of the Bible is a collection of stories, of how the people of God have discovered that God is with them, that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy, that God is love, and that when we least expect it, God takes us to new places, new situations, maybe new challenges, new transformations, to comprehend, anew and even more, the great love of God that we find in Jesus the Christ. 

Thanks be to God.