Sunday, October 31, 2010

Don't Miss the Point - Sermon delivered via Skype at Northminster Presbyterian Church, Portland, OR

Luke 18:9-14 CEV
“Jesus told this story to some people who thought they were better than others and who looked down on everyone else: Two men went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, or unfaithful in marriage like other people. And I am really glad I am not like the tax collector over there. I go without eating for two days a week, and I give you one-tenth of all I earn.’

The tax collector stood at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up to heaven. He was so sorry for what he’d done that he pounded his chest and prayed: ‘God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner.’

Then Jesus said, ‘When the two men went home, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God. If you put yourself above others, you’ll be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.’” 

I have a new found respect for parables. One of the many cultural adjustments that I am having to make is trying to adapt to a much more direct form of communication. In my experience, Salvadorans tend to get right to the point and do not shy away from speaking exactly what is on their mind. Communication in Guatemala falls on the opposite end of the spectrum; almost overly courteous, fraught with subtleties and very indirect. Perhaps, after finally embracing the Guatemalan model this leap to the Salvadoran style at the other extreme is proving to be quite a challenge.

Stories that convey meaning indirectly through comparison or analogy feel accessible, even comfortable; easier to swallow. That’s probably why Jesus liked to use parables so much. However, as is sometimes the case with indirect forms of communication, parables leave the story open for misunderstanding, or simply missing the point. And today’s parable is a classic case.

First we meet the Pharisee. You might remember that Pharisee’s had quite the reputation back in the day. They were considered by many to be hypocrites, yet considered themselves to be the epitome of righteousness as meticulous followers of religious law. As part of society’s elite, the Pharisees enjoyed much wealth and many comforts; in other words, the means to comply with requisite Temple offerings and an abundance of blessings for which to give thanks. It is not surprising that we encounter the Pharisee, touting his commitment to fasting and tithing, from a standing position front and center, certain to draw attention to himself as he prayed.

The stereotypical teacher’s pet, the Rachel Barry character (for our Glee fanatics out there) we’re told, “stood apart by himself and prayed,” or some versions read, “stood up and prayed to himself.” This could mean prayed silently, but it would not seem out of character for the Pharisee to be praying not necessarily to God but rather to hear himself pray, Thank God I am not like all the other, lesser people. But how much easier must it be to fast two days a week when going hungry is not a familiar feeling, and how much more feasible is a ten% tithe when it doesn’t imply not being able to make rent? The text is kind of leading as to who is in the wrong in this story. Is that the point?

Well, let’s meet the other man who went up to the Temple to pray, a tax collector. Tax collectors, or publicans in that day and age, had a reputation of their own. Known to be greedy, corrupt and always willing to take advantage of hardworking tax payers in the interest of making a buck, a tax collector was a traitor (a fellow Jew working for Rome) and thus considered the lowest of the low in Jewish society. So one might expect the tax collector to slink into the Temple and take a place near the back, in an attempt to go unnoticed. By his posture and his prayer we can tell that he clearly feels unworthy, and is not proud of the life he lives. Pounding his chest, guilt-ridden and ashamed, he utters a plea that God might take pity on him.

Normally, the story would close with some ambiguous statement like, “go and do the same.” But in what would appear to be a very non-parable-like fashion, Jesus wraps it all up for us. “When the two men went home, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God.” Well, okay then. That seems simple enough. So if I take the Facebook quiz, “Which parable character are you?” I should be hoping for tax collector. I mean, I’m not arrogant and pretentious like the Pharisee…thank God! That’s the point, right?

It’s easy to get caught up in the labels and assumptions that we have about such typecast characters as a Pharisee and a tax collector, and come to this story ready to judge one or both. What if we alter the cast? What if we write ourselves into the story? I bet if we are honest, each and every one of us at one time or another has prayed the Pharisee’s prayer, or something like it. Passing a car accident on the freeway we might think: Thank God, thank you that it wasn’t me. Upon hearing news of a catastrophe or natural disaster we might be tempted to say: Thank you God that my family was not involved. Without any bad intentions whatsoever, this is still just one step away from: Thank God it was them and not us. Or we come to God like the tax collector, embarrassed and broken and in desperate need of forgiveness, but with little if any intent to make a change; to live differently. Haven’t we still missed the point?

Thursday morning I sat in my office waiting for the appointment I had scheduled for 9 o’clock. I was waiting for the woman who had offered to help me in the process of soliciting temporary residency as a religious worker in the country. She had mentioned several times that she lived just four bus stops from the office, but yet it was pushing ten and there was still no sign of her. I was getting a little frustrated even though I know all about the umm…different concept of time and punctuality that is practiced in Latin America. I could feel my mood souring and I found myself thinking about how my office space is really less than adequate; the bird cage full of parakeets just outside the window next to me, some kind of invisible bugs that bite me unaware all day long, one bar of wireless internet signal if I’m lucky, and most nights it doubles as a living space for the woman with whom I share it. To top it off, the office is located near the entrance on the first level of the Lutheran Synod, so it is also an office that receives lots of visitors.

After getting a call that she had gotten tied up and was on her way (at ten minutes to ten) I began sorting through my documents, passport, birth certificate, criminal history clearance, letter from the church verifying my position and proof of financial support, etc. What a process! All this paperwork I had to prepare ahead of time and the certifications are not cheap. Just thinking about the estimated budget that the woman had sent me ahead of time was making my bad mood worse. How could the church be expected to pay over $700 to formalize my immigration status? Are we getting scammed? Could it possibly cost that much? And if so, what a waste of funds! Even in the short time that I have been here I have already seen firsthand endless ways that that money could make much more of a difference.

Now I was really upset, and in the middle of my argument with myself a gentleman came into the office with a folder in hand. He greeted both of us with a smile and a pleasant good morning, buenos dias, before starting a conversation with Pastora Cecilia, my officemate. I’ll admit I was relieved, I just wasn’t in the mood for small talk and my appointment would be arriving any minute, my mind was definitely elsewhere. Before I knew it, the visitor was standing at my desk introducing himself as Juan and spreading the contents of the folder over all my legal documents. Couldn’t he see that I was busy and that these were important papers that I couldn’t afford to mess up? If he only knew that this was a several hundred dollar process he was interrupting...

              ...I sat there mortified, completely speechless, as he began to share the details of how he and his family arrived as refugees to the Casa Concordia, a shelter run by the Lutheran Church. Juan, his wife, two daughters, 20 and 24, and their eight-year-old son fled Honduras after their older son was abducted and murdered in late July. Juan is a member of a workers’ union that has been speaking out against unfair treatment of skilled workers and a general unwillingness to hire tradesmen with decades of experience because young, inexperienced, engineering graduates will work for less. As if the murder of his son were not tragic enough, when his partner from the union was also found dead he knew for certain that he and his family were no longer safe.

He leaned over my desk and showed me the most recent photo of his son and the newspaper clippings with the story and picture of where his son’s body was found. He showed me the prescriptions for medicine and fortified baby formula for his eldest daughter and her new baby who have contracted hepatitis. The baby was born on October 8th at the home of a family member just this side of the Honduras/El Salvador border where Juan’s family slept on the dirt floor and was later asked to leave so as not to put the family member at risk. And he showed me his formal documents; a copy of his passport and the rumpled pages from the Department of Human Rights in Honduras validating their refugee status. He explained that as refugees they can stay at the Casa Concordia indefinitely, but the food basket they were given initially is quickly running out and food donations are not easy to come by. In order to work legally Juan would have to go through the immigration process to get the necessary permits and not only is it too expensive, but settling this close to Honduras his family would still be in danger. “The same gangs and hitmen operate here in El Salvador too,” he tells me. They are hoping to apply for asylum in Canada or Australia, but the process is long and tedious, and there are no guarantees.

When I could finally muster words I realized that in that moment all I could do for him was to offer him a seat and a glass of water, and just listen.

What could I possibly do faced with this situation? Should I stand up and say Thank God that I am fully prepared for the residency process? Thank you, God that I have resources enough to cover my needs. And thank God that if worse came to worst and things didn’t work out, I could always just pick up and go home. That would certainly be missing the point. So then should I throw up my hands and give in, obviously I'm not worthy to be serving in this capacity? Maybe pound my chest and ask to be shown mercy for failing to help. Not the point either.

Juan and family literally have nothing but the clothes on their backs, they are putting their faith in a process that may or may not pan out, and they can no longer return home, out of fear for their lives; for them worse has already come to worst. I spent the rest of the day, who am I kidding, the rest of the week really wrestling with the question, Where is God in all of this? And it dawned on me…THAT is the point.

God is in all of this, whether I can do anything about it or not! It’s not about me! It is not about what I can or can’t do! I am the Pharisee, proud and boastful. At times we all are. And I am the tax collector; I do fall short and need God’s mercy. We all do. But we miss the point when we focus on who is the better person, more righteous, or who can be more humble. This parable reminds us that we should focus on the generosity, love, mercy and mystery of God, and what God empowers us to do with God, even if sometimes that simply means listen. Amen.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Christmas come early??

It is October 23rd and construction is underway on the large, lit Christmas tree display at MetroCentro, the shopping mall on the north side of San Salvador. As you can see, it is quite the process with all the scaffolding and several workers. I have to chuckle at the contrast between this big artificial pine tree being errected just across the courtyard from a giant natural palm.

The shop facing the immense tree display is stocked and ready for holiday decorating as well. You can bet that department stores, even grocery stores are
marketing gifts and lining the shelves with holiday treats.

October 23rd. I think that's a record. I mean, decorating and tree-triming on Thanksgiving weekend is pushing it, in my opinion. The second to last weekend in October is just plain ridiculous! The leaves haven't even changed color or started to fall, we haven't turned our clocks back. And what about Halloween, Veterans' Day, Turkey? It hasn't frozen overnight yet, I can't even see my breath...

Perhaps without all the signs and stages of Autumn and the coming of Winter leading up to it, Christmas comes early here. It couldn't be to take advantage of a few more shopping days, could it?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Credit: Friend or Foe

Many of us, myself included, experience a love/hate relationship with credit. At first, hard to attain, then hard to restrain, and finally hard to maintain. Credit, especially in the form of credit cards, seems to have permeated North American culture. Applications arrive by mail daily, one can't escape the advertisements on TV, and the promise of a few cents off at the pump or the accumulation of frequent flier miles is too tempting...errrr, practical to pass up. Even our classic cartoons encouraged the use of credit to meet our most basic needs; "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

The concept of credit is not inherently bad. In fact, in its truest form one might even say that the exercise of lending and borrowing on credit is an exercise of virtue, requiring integrity, trust, discipline. The transaction implies a relationship, a community that is to be respected. But the harsh reality, and the hang up for most, is that credit also requires means.

This is the primary challenge facing Don Carlos as he struggles to make a living as a mechanic with his own small shop, run out of his home. Our conversation actually took place as he was exercising one of his OTHER occupations as a driver-for-hire. His third, and perhaps his passion, is intricate iron work for doors and windows, etc. Unfortunately, he finds himself having to practice, even juggle, all three to try and make ends meet. Carlos shared that there is plenty of work for a mechanic, and many people enjoy the convenience and confidence of a neighborhood shop.

"There is plenty of work, but everybody," he says, "wants the work done on credit. The big shops are able to offer credit, but one has to qualify and be willing to sign legal contracts and pay high interests. Some people even lose their cars when they can't pay. What can I do if a person can't pay, or does not pay on time? My family can't eat."

Carlos understands all too well the challenges of doing business on credit, but as a small business owner he also wants to keep clients. "Some say, I can give you this much today and I'll pay you the rest when I get my check at the end of the month. They forget that I do all the work, then I still have to use credit for my bills until the end of the month. And if he still can't pay..."

It's a vicious circle, and sadly, a way of life. But this is not about living beyond one's means, it is a necessary stopgap: the difference between food on the table or going hungry. MonseƱor Romero reminds us, “No es voluntad de Dios que unos tengan todo y otros no tengan nada.” It is not God's will that some should have everything and others should have none.

I felt helpless to respond to Carlos' needs. Nothing I could do, not even what he would receive for his service as driver would make a meaningful difference to him or his family. But I am learning along this journey of accompaniment, that living in solidarity does make a difference. It means living differently, allowing myself to go out and not come back the same. I pray that we can stop and think about the cycle of credit before we make that next purchase, and not just reflect upon can I afford this but do I really need it! I invite you to join me in living differently, and we might begin by pondering the question, "what's in your wallet?"

Monday, October 11, 2010

Time to Join Hands

October 8, 2010

The bright sunlight is pouring in through the open window and the cool breezes that have blown in with October are heaven sent. A much needed change from the stormy weather that wreaked havoc throughout Central America just two short weeks ago. This break in the action is allowing some to put pieces back together as best they can, as others are advised or choose to wait to rebuild until the rainy season comes to an end. Looking outside today, it seems ludicrous to even suggest that bad weather was on the horizon. However, another stronger and potentially more devastating storm off the Atlantic is in the forecast for the end of the month. Preventative measures are being encouraged, especially in the most vulnerable communities and those most affected by Tropical Storm Matthew, but for most families money barely stretches far enough week to week and stockpiling food or water in preparation for a storm is simply an impossible task.

Posters at the Museum AJA refer to climate
change and living in peace with the planet,
"without corn there is no country"
 In these times of crisis it becomes even more evident that war has left a terrible scar on this country and its people. Violence continues to maim its struggling economy and wound, literally and figuratively, the women, men and children determined to thrive even in the midst of such a difficult reality. Reminders of El Salvador’s vulnerabilities are everywhere; some as benign as the overpriced food at the supermarket and others as ominous as the fear for personal safety experienced upon boarding a public bus. The floods and mudslides provoked by Matthew´s heavy rains made it impossible to ignore the precarious conditions in which more than 80% of the population lives.

Given these realities, representatives from different churches and religious groups, professional unions and community groups are coming together to create the Joining Hands Network, to stand in solidarity with the people of El Salvador to combat the injustices that lead to impoverishment and hunger. Joining Hands is collaborating to create positive change at all levels by promoting food sovereignty and security in the face of genetically modified seeds and produce, by denouncing the destruction of El Salvador´s natural water sources through the indiscriminate construction of dams, and by shedding light on the exploitation by transnational companies, particularly mining, that contaminate the country and violate human rights.

In the short time that I have been in El Salvador, seeking to discover the vision and purpose of Joining Hands through the perspectives of the network participants, I am amazed and encouraged by the presence of Archbishop Oscar Romero´s prophetic vision of justice and dignified conditions for all God´s children. Theologically orthodox, even conservative, Oscar Romero was selected to serve as Archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977, much to the dismay of progressive liberation theology clergy who continued to stand and struggle with the rural poor. Shocked and saddened by the murder of a close friend and fellow priest just three weeks after his appointment, Romero was transformed by a silent call to unite in solidarity and to accompany of the impoverished in their struggle to defend their rights. Archbishop Romero became an outspoken advocate for God´s justice and peace in El Salvador until his murder at the hands of a sniper while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980. A prophet of our time, his memory lives strong in hearts of the people of El Salvador, and his message still calls to us today.

"God needs the people themselves to save the world. . . The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of hand-outs from governments or from the churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation." Archbishop Oscar Romero
The Joining Hands Network in El Salvador is striving to live into the words and actions of those, such as Archbishop Romero, who have walked this path before us. United in a vision of God’s justice, we join hands in solidarity to accompany and empower “the people themselves” to work for a lasting peace and holistic development in El Salvador.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Tropical Storm Matthew's Mess

Photo from today’s paper with caption that reads,
“Climatic conditions return to those typi­cal of the
rainy season; the un­seasonable situation has ended.”

Well friends, here we are again. I know some of you are probably scratching your heads and saying, “I think I’ve seen these pictures before, in fact, I think Kristi sent them to me!” I’m sure that many of you did receive very similar photos of the devastation in Guatemala caused by Hurricane Stan in October 2005. Unfortunately, the “view from the hammock” has changed completely over the course of one week!

While the rain has let up, the temperatures are still low and the sun is barely peeking through the dense clouds. Things are just beginning to dry out, but 171 communities remain on Red Alert due to the level of ground saturation and several of those are under water (above). More than 3,100 people have been moved to temporary shelter in 11 of the 14 departments across El Salvador. Many have no choice but to simply wait and see if their homes and belongings have weathered the storm. Others, like the families who live in the homes pictured here, could not be evacuated due to space limitations in the shelters. Beth Tellman, a Fulbright Scholar with CEIBA El Salvador wrote of this family on Tuesday, “The children sleep on the floor by the door out of fear that they might need to get themselves out.”
An estimated 45% of the bean crop and 40% of corn
has be ruined by the heavy rains and flooding,
result of Tropical Storm Matthew.
The immediate needs are great, and widespread. The people of El Salvador are struggling along with their sisters and brothers throughout Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Three out of the four major border crossings with Guatemala are currently closed due to massive mudslides and bridge washouts, and since much of the countries vegetables come from Guatemala, and crops have been devastated throughout the region this will certainly limit availability and result in a cost hike. El Salvador already suffers from inflated food costs and with an estimated loss of almost HALF of this year’s bean and corn crops, scarcity leading to an increase in imports will undoubtedly make next year’s prices unbearable, and for the most vulnerable populations, simply impossible. 

Naively, I assumed that having lived this once before, and coming prepared with rain gear and rubber boots, I would be ready, equipped. Rubber boots can’t fill empty bellies.

Weeping with those who weep…  

    Romans 12:15