“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” (Matthew 5:3, The Message)
The bus’ tires left the smooth pavement and hit dirt and rocks. As the bus jolted down the road, the road got narrower and narrower. After turning tight corners and dodging huge rocks, we arrived at our destination. The small, leaning building was a church in the midst of a shantytown in Costa Rica.
As we drove past the homes that were constructed with random pieces of lumber and corrugated tin, I realized that I was not in Kansas (or Virginia) anymore. As the children ran barefoot along side the bus to welcome us and out of curiosity, I knew that whatever my first world problems were, they didn’t compare to the lives of these in the third world.
I imagined the words of Mother Teresa as she escorted people down her streets of Calcutta:
Maria, the wife of the church’s pastor and one of the church’s leaders, led us through the shantytown, taking us to our people. We met a grandmother who was raising up to ten grandchildren. We met a single mother who walked into town, took a thirty minute bus ride to another major city, only to walk more to the coffee fields where she picked coffee beans. Her four sons were left home along in their shack. We met a group of sisters, the oldest was maybe twelve, who stayed home all day by themselves in fear. While their mother was at work, they worried that their abusive father would show up.
You could not look at these faces, these scars, these wounds, these swollen feet, these bleeding toes, these leaning houses, these unattached roofs, without putting your own life into perspective.
Here are people who were hanging on to the end of their ropes. Poverty. Hunger. Abuse. Neglect. Addictions.
And yet, Jesus says that when you are at the end of your rope, you are blessed. We tend to think that when we have our act together, our home organized, our children in bed, bills paid, we are blessed. Jesus does what Jesus does so well, he says the unexpected. He turns the norm upside down. He shakes it up a little bit.
When we are at the end of our ropes – when we have had enough – that is when we are our weakest. And when we are weak, Jesus is strong – I heard that in a song once. When we are weak, Christ is strong. When we are in that vulnerable place, is it a prime time to have an encounter with the Christ who in his weakest moment was his strongest. When there is less of us, there is more Jesus, and when there is more Jesus, we experience God’s Kingdom.
What this means is that when we are the end of our ropes, it doesn’t make us any less righteous. Think of it as making room for Jesus. The question then becomes, will you let Jesus in?
Foreign. While foreign (rightly so) often brings up images of things outside of your own nation, it can also apply to things outside of or different from your normal environment, or even something which is out of place in general.
This picture was taken in Costa Rica this past January. This is inside the Basilica de los Angeles in Cartago. The Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic Church in Costa Rica, and people come from all over the country and other parts of Central America to this church. They fall to their needs at the back of the church and shuffle down the aisle, praying. Some use their rosaries, others just pray. This kind of devotion and expression of faith and spirituality has become foreign.
A sermon preached on John 6:35, 41-51 on Sunday, August 12, 2012 at Peakland United Methodist Church.
Dust was flying through the air as the children ran back and forth kicking a soccer ball. Spanish and English floated above heads as college students from the United States were playing futbol with Costa Rican children while on a mission trip to the shantytown Los Diques. As the ball flew past Paul, one of the American college students, the Costa Rican children laughed that they had gotten the ball past him. But Paul’s attention had left the soccer game.
In the distance, Paul noticed something. Or, rather, someone. Sitting next to an electrical pole that didn’t work, in tall green grass that hadn’t been cut, was a toddler. Paul walked over to the electrical pole as the soccer game continued. He picked up the small boy who was wearing only a diaper, and carried him into the church.
This was the first time I met Jabel. He was two at the time. He lived in a small two-room house that sat across the dirt road from a church and next to the shantytown’s trash pile. At random times during the week someone would come by and set the trash on fire to burn down the pile. The smell of burnt trash would drift into Jabel’s house
His single mother worked in coffee fields all day. She would walk about 20 minutes from the shantytown into the nearest city to ride the bus thirty minutes to the coffee fields. During the day, she left her three boys, Jabel and his two older brothers, at home by themselves.
Even though Jabel’s mother loves him deeply, she struggles to put bread on the table.
The average person in the world will eat one small meal today, and this was true for Jabel and others like him in the shantytown of Los Diques. Hunger is a reality that hurts.
In Biblical times, hunger was a reality that was not overlooked. And it is this context of hunger – a universal experience – that Jesus spoke what became controversial words: “I am the bread that comes from heaven.”
In verse 41, John tells us that the Jews started complaining because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came from heaven.” This statement aroused anger and anxiety in the people. This is in contrast to the response Jesus got in last week’s reading from John 6, where the people wanted more of Jesus. They sought him out. But not this week! Here they complain!
They didn’t seek understanding or clarification. Instead they murmur and complain. “How can this be?” they ask. These words from Jesus cause them to remember how their ancestors wandered around in the wilderness (murmuring and complaining, none the less), and how Moses provided them with manna from heaven. “The giving of the manna,” Biblical scholar William Barclay writes, “was held to be the supreme work in the life of Moses and the Messiah was bound to surpass it.” And so, here is this Jesus who claims to be the Messiah, with no manna from heaven. Instead, he calls himself that bread from heaven.
With this one statement, Jesus calls into question everything the people had believed and held as truth. Not only was Jesus changing their way of understanding “bread from heaven,” but he was changing their understanding of being in relationship with God. To be in relationship with God meant believing in Jesus as the Christ.
And their way of coping with this, was to complain. And why not? It’s so easy.
A monk joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. After the first 10 years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After another 10 years the monk again had opportunity to voice his thoughts. He said, “Bed hard.” Another 10 years went by and again he was called in before his superior. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.” “It doesn’t surprise me a bit. You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.”
But seriously, when it comes to growing in our faith and in our relationship with God, complaining gets in the way. You know why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years? Because they were complaining so much. Look at Jesus’ answer in verse 43: “Do not complain among yourselves.” The Message puts it this way, “Don’t bicker among yourselves.”
Jesus calls it as he sees it. Complaining gets in the way of spiritual growth. Jesus offers to us the Bread of Life, the nourishment that will keep us individually and as a community of faith, from wandering in the wilderness.
Irenaeus, an early church theologian, was asked what new thing has Christ brought that others do not give us, he replied, “He brought himself.” The bread from heaven that Jesus brings is himself for the spiritual self of humanity. “He is,” Irenaeus says, “as necessary to us as our food.”
We may not be hungering for bread like Jabel, but we hunger in a spiritual way. And Jesus says that he is the bread that came from heaven, those who eat of this bread will live forever, and be hungry no more. A hunger that can be fed through Jesus Christ.
For it is through a relationship IN Christ that we, as the workmanship of God, are able to share the Bread of Life with those who are hungering. We, as the Apostle Paul tells us through his letter to the Ephesians are to live the life which we are called. Those of us who claim Christ as Savior are called to be Christians, which can be simply translated as “little Christs.”
In the 1992 Walt Disney film, Aladdin, the title character goes through some extreme measures to get a loaf of bread, including running away from the Sultan’s guards. As an adolescent living on the streets, Aladdin knows that this loaf of bread could possibly be the only food he’ll have that day.
As he’s about to bite into the bread Aladdin notices two small children digging through trash, searching for something to eat. In that moment, Aladdin becomes a “little Christ,” generously giving his bread to the children. As Frances Taylor Gench, of Union Seminary in Richmond says, “No image could convey more clearly Jesus’ power to nourish and sustain human life and to address our ultimate hunger – the hunger in every human heart for relationship with God.”
We are called to do the same – to share the Bread the Life with those who are hungering. When Paul says in Ephesians 5:1 that we should be “imitators of God,” this is what he means. We – in every way, on every day – are to imitate the God we say we love. Whether that be in Central America, right here in Lynchburg, or even within the walls here at Peakland; packing lunches or giving money to support a feeding program; we are called to imitate the Christ.
So, I ask you how – where – are you being called to imitate Christ by sharing the Bread of Life?
The Challenge: Down. We spend a lot of time looking ahead, looking from left to right before we cross the street, looking into the sky for Superman, but not a lot of time looking down. What do you see?
This is a photo I took while in Los Diques, Costa Rica in January 2010.
This bridge is no longer in the Diques. When it was, it ran from one shantytown area to another, over a river. This was the main way into the city for many who lived on the other side. It also held a water pipe, adding to the balance challenge of crossing the bridge.
When I have had the chance to witness people walking across, I observed that none of them looked down. I got courageous enough to step out just a bit on it to see what it was like. The bridge was uneven, swinging with every move. There was no security, no guarantee that I would be safe getting across. One wrong step and we are covered in the muddy water. I couldn’t help but look down as I took my few steps. How do they do this? I wondered. How do they not look down? How do they not worry about falling through?
Isn’t that a lot like life?
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2, NRSV)
A commission is given along with a threefold blessing. A great call and a greater blessing. All in just the first three verses found in chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis. A passage I have heard and taught on various times and places. Whether in worship from the pulpit or in the basement of the youth building, the call of Abram and God’s blessings is a story of faith that begins to unfold.
Genesis 12:1-3 is a pivotal break in the Genesis narrative. It begins the great ancestral narrative and begins a journey of God’s people that will continue through the rest of the book of Genesis. For it is the call from God that sets the journey in motion, as J. Gerald Janzen points out. And it is more than just Abram’s journey. “For all its brevity,” Janzen writes, “this call is of immeasurable importance, for it both anchors the journey and guides our interpretation of each step along the way – Abraham’s, his descendants’, and our own steps as we join the journey.”
Walter Brueggemann suggests that the commission to be a blessing was intended for Israel to live a life under the promise to “energize and model a way for the other nations also to receive a blessing from this God.” This theology of being a blessing to the “unqualified” is utilized through the New Testament, reflecting back to Abraham and Genesis 12. The Gospel of Luke is very attentive to the “unqualified” through the stories of Jesus blessing the crippled woman (Luke 13:10-17) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). And these are just two examples. In Acts 3:25, Peter quotes Genesis 12:3 in his sermon to the Jewish community. Paul, similarly, refers to this commission to be a blessing as the “gospel beforehand” in his letter to the Galatians (3:8).
I can’t help but think of the “unqualified” in Los Diques. As we drove through the downtown/suburban community of Cartago and crossed over the railroad tracks, we seemed to leave one reality to enter another. The promise of land, of descendants, and blessing would be received as hope in this community. Yet, at the same time, this community takes serious the commission to “be a blessing.”
Sometimes the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. To know that God speaks in the barrenness of live, offers hope for any of us. It reminds us that God still longs for relationship with humanity.
In our recent mission trip to Costa Rica, our mission team adopted a theme of walking in the Light. One of the songs we sang as a team was the gospel song “Jesus, the Light of the World.”
When living in darkness, it is often hard to find light, and even harder to walk in that light. We see poverty in various forms. We hear stories of prostitution, gangs, and massive drug use. And we see darkness.
Yet, we are reminded:
“You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, CEB).
Jesus said that. While we follow the Light that is Jesus Christ, he tells us that we are the light. We carry the light with us. So, it is our responsibility as followers of Christ to bear the light in the midst of darkness.
We met a boy around the age of 8 or 9 named Andres in Los Diques. He was shy and uncertain about coming back to the Bible school. But, after we got started the next day, he showed up. He and Megan bonded from the very beginning. We learned as the week went on that Andres lived with his mother and step-father, and that his step-father made sure that his biological children were feed first, before Andres was fed. Andres got especially close to Megan, and Megan to him.
The light was shared in the relationships that were formed.
Here is a video of the gospel song, “Jesus, the Light of the World,” featuring the late Jessy Dixon:
A sermon preached January 1, 2012 at Lebanon United Methodist Church on Matthew 2:1-12 and Ephesians 3:1-12.
This week our church will be a part of the 7th mission trip to Los Diques, Costa Rica. I have had the privilege, by the grace of God and the generosity of others, to be a part of all 7 mission trips. Since the first trip in 2006, my experiences in Diques have influenced my preaching and my teaching in various ways. It’s not uncommon for me to share a story about Don Victor, the pastor at the Church of the Light of the New Day in Diques, or his family. Or about different children we’ve meet over the years and how their stories impacted our lives.
Don Victor and his story came to mind as I pondered today’s worship service. About 25 years ago, Don Victor moved his family into Los Diques, leaving behind a comfortable lifestyle to live in a place with no electricity, no running water, and streets and floors made of dirt. Why? That’s the question that so many Costa Ricans and Americans have asked for years. Why would he do this?
Don Victor saw something in Diques that few others did, and few still do to this day. Where others saw prostitutes and drug dealers, Don Victor saw children of God. Where others saw a collection of run down shacks, Don Victor saw the Kingdom of God. Even with this new perspective, Don Victor’s story is not a warm, cuddly one. He was met with a lot of resistance. He received very little support from other Christians because he was doing ministry in such a ghetto. During worship services, neighbors would play loud music or run loud machinery. At times rocks would rain down on the building during services. There were days when dead dogs were thrown at the building, landing right at the front gate.
As Don Victor was welcoming the outcasts of Diques into the Body of Christ, he was unwelcomed.
The Apostle Paul knew something about not being welcomed. It is believed that Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians while in prison. Paul’s preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ was not welcomed. Yet, the gospel was not the only thing not welcomed in the first century church. There was a major controversy in the first church, something I know we are not accustomed to today. Luke documents the controversy well in Acts 15. In Paul’s day, there was one major division among people – Jew or Gentile.
In the simplest definition, a Gentile is a non-Jew. The Acts 15 controversy centered on whether Gentile Christians should go through the same rituals that the Jewish Christians did. In a sense, it became an issue of membership. The Jewish Christians were not recognizing the Gentile Christians membership in the church. The issue was not limited to just Acts 15. It was a problem that would rear its ugly head throughout the early church.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul’s major theme is that God’s plan of salvation is evident through the unified – the oneness – of the body of the church – the body of Christ. Many of the mission trips to Costa Rica have had the theme of “Somos Uno” – We are one. Don Victor preached about how we are all different, different languages, colors, and hair styles, with different abilities, skills, and gifts, and when we come together we make up the Body of Christ and together accomplish the work of the Kingdom of God.
This idea – this theology – is sprinkled throughout Paul’s letters, including in Ephesians. Yet, there is this division between Jews and Gentiles. Paul, in essence, tells the Ephesians what he tells so many others, “Get over it.” Yes, there are differences. And that happens. But don’t let those differences become stumbling blocks to doing Kingdom work. What Paul is saying is that we all – Jews and Gentiles – can live together in this new Christian community to do the work of the kindgom.
Yet, the notion that Gentiles were to be included and participate on an equal basis with Jewish people was still quite controversial at the time. Paul had a goal to unite Jew and Gentile in equal grace. The bottom line for Paul is this: Christ simply HAS been made manifest to all, and the good news about him WILL go out from all who are committed to him and to all the world, including the Gentiles.
Including the unwelcomed.
This is just one of the themes we uncover in Matthew’s birth narrative, where the final pieces of the Nativity Set – the arrival of the wise men – are put into place. Iraqi or Iranian star gazers were not normally seen waltzing into Jerusalem looking for a newborn king. “If they did,” as one observer has noted, “they would have known enough protocol from their own culture that they wouldn’t normally start by asking common people and maybe a priest or two where this child might be. Matters of state like this would usually have been handled by an official delegation working through all the ‘right’ channels. In short, what these men were doing in Jerusalem and how they did it was bound – and maybe even intended – to draw suspicion from the powers that be.” And suspicion it did draw.
Here are men most likely dressed in clothing that is very different from the cultural norm of Jerusalem, they probably have different facial features, and the gifts they bring with them suggest they are of a higher economic means than the average Jerusalem citizen. These men are different.
Of the four Gospels, Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish. It’s possible that the faith community that Matthew is writing his gospel for is the first Jewish Christian community in the first century. There is a strong sense in this gospel to follow the Mosaic law; to hear Jesus teach in the tradition of the great Hebrew rabbis; and the importance of spiritual practices. In Matthew’s view, this rich tradition of the Jewish faith are items that should be continued in the Christian faith. Yet, with all this Jewishness, Matthew’s birth narrative has the least amount of Jewish characters.
It seems that the Jewish-Gentile tension is present in this early faith community as well. I don’t think that it was a mere chance that Matthew includes the Magi in his gospel account. Matthew is saying that there are traditions that are important and will guide us to growth, but that does not mean that we should keep Gentiles out, because they don’t fit into that tradition. Mike Slaughter, a Methodist minister, points out that it was these nameless travelers who are the committed ones in Matthew’s narrative. It was not the Jews, the ones inside the faith community, it was the Gentiles, those outside the community of faith. Upon arrival, they bow down and worship Christ; they open their treasures and present them to the King; and they leave by a different way – transformed – changed.
From the beginning, Matthew is telling his faith community that tradition is important and valued, but that does not mean we exclude those who are different from us. Christ is for all. That is the message of the Manger. The Christ child was not born in a palace with plush pillows, but rather in a barn surrounded by manure. The Christ child was not visited by great political leaders, but rather was surrounded by barn yard animals, smelly shepherds, and foreigners. Christ does the unexpected, and welcomes the unexpected.
The shantytown that is Los Diques is a place where people with no other means go. Families escaping abusive fathers. Mothers addicted to drugs. Grandmothers raising her grandchildren. Young boys whose only way out is to join a gang; young girls whose only way out is to sell herself. This is a place the government would rather not exist, which is why they have been so reluctant over the years to provide the basic necessities for these people.
Yet, none of this matters to Don Victor. Never has. People are people. And all people need grace.
I remember once walking through Los Diques with Don Victor and we came upon a teenage boy, who was 15 or 16. Don Victor looked him right in the eyes and began to rattle off in his mumbling kind of Spanish. I couldn’t understand a word Don Victor was saying, but I did know from context clues he offered earlier on our walk that we were in the area of Diques where pot was being grown – marjurnia. While I couldn’t understand, I knew from the young man’s facial expression that he understood what Don Victor was saying. I noticed his arms abused like a cutting board from the drugs he had been taking. Don Victor knew this young man, knew that no matter what he had done that day, he needed to know that there was a place for him at the church, that he was valued by Don Victor and Jesus, and that grace was for him too.
The fact that these Magi, studiers of the stars from a foreign land, visited the Christ Child is a bit of foreshadowing into the ministry of Christ. Jesus welcomed all. The tax collector that nobody wanted to have lunch with; the children everyone wanted to keep in their place; the leper that no one dared touch; the bleeding woman everyone had forgotten about. And Jesus stills welcomes all, no matter where you have been or what you have done.
Whenever we gather around this Table, Spencer (or any other Elder) will say that this table is not Lebanon’s table – it is not the UMC’s table – it is Christ’s Table, and as such, all are welcomed. All are welcomed at Christ’s table. The bottom line of Paul’s message to the Ephesians is the bottom line of Christ’s table: Christ simply has been made manifest to all, and to all there is equal grace.
That’s the lesson I have learned from Don Victor – that all are welcomed – all receive grace. That is the message of Paul’s ministry and the message of the Manger. . . and the Cross. And we who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to follow in those footsteps to welcome all to share the good news of an equal grace to all.
This afternoon our mission team split up into two groups to walk through Los Diques. Maruja – the pastor’s wife, a leader of the church – walked with the group I was in.
As we walked along the uneven dirt roads, being sure not to lose our balance on the massive rocks, Maruja would point out different homes and tell us who lives there or who lived there. She would stop at almost every person we met along the way to talk to them. A few times she asked us to pray for that family.
What occurred to me as we walked along these dusty roads, up mountain trails, and through mud, was that Maruja knew these people. And not in that I know your name and stuff about you kind of way, but in that deeply personal-relational way. She knows their stories, and she knows because she deeply cares for this community.
It was the rocky, dusty roads of Los Diques where I caught a glimpse of God today.