Sunday, April 27, 2008

John 14:12-17, Can we do great things?

Westminster Presbyterian April 27, 2008 Day of Prayer for Colombia

My friend Kurt Shaw (who married yesterday) has been working with street children in Colombia for years, now. Kurt shares a story of one morning with some kids he’d gotten to know pretty well:

The kids arrived silently that morning; they weren’t singing or laughing like they usually do when they arrive from the refugee shantytown where they lived, just south of Bogotá. Usually they play the radio, or try out a new rap song, or talk about the news of the town: who was pregnant, what soccer team would win this weekend. That day they just sat against the wall, drawing blankets close around them to ward off the chill of the fog. Their friend Moreno had died that week, murdered by the paramilitary death squad that controls their neighborhood.

These kids were not strangers to death. Earlier that same year, the paramilitaries murdered 16 young men overnight, then left their bodies side by side close to the park so that other kids would know not to join any groups the paramilitaries didn’t control. Yet, even in the midst of this violence, this week was the first time that these kids had lost one from their own clique—one of their own. Hundreds of their peers had died over the last year, but Moreno’s death threatened all of them. The children tried to make sense of it: “We’ve talked enough about him,” said one boy. “Talking doesn’t help. Neither does crying. He’s dead,” a girl said quietly. “And they can kill all of us too, and no one will ever do anything” “Why do they kill kids?” my friend asked them. “They say we’re filth.” “Subversives” “Guerrillas.” “Gangsters and thieves.” “Even kids like us, good kids, we get in trouble when we tell the truth, when we say that the paramilitaries are bad, when we say that they’re hypocrites for selling drugs, then killing people for doing drugs,” said Andres, a twelve year old rapper, who’d been living under a death threat because his songs condemned the violence of the death squads.

The conversation began to flow, twenty kids talking about the mafia that controlled their neighborhood, trying to understand why their neighbors sometimes even applauded when the death squads killed innocent kids. “Everyone is scared of us teenagers, but I don’t know why. It’s the adults that kill,” said one girl. Somehow this hurt them even more: not just that their friend had been murdered, but that supposedly respectable adults supported his death. As the kids talked, it became obvious that “teenagers” symbolized random chaotic violence, while the paramilitaries—who call themselves “la limpieza”, or “the cleanliness”–
stood for rational violence, so to speak, violence armed at bring order back to the shantytown. Without the state to guarantee security, people believed that only the paramilitaries stood between them and the chaos of the teenagers. 1

What’s it like to grow up in a country torn apart by war? What’s it like to grow up in a violent neighborhood? To grow up in extreme poverty—being fed biscuits mixed with mud—as some children are being fed now in Haiti. What is to be our response as followers of Christ? What are we supposed to do?

Well, in John we are told that if we believe in Jesus than we will do the work that he did: Jesus was committed to one thing and one thing alone. He was committed to service of God. And this commitment meant to love with radical love. A love that would exclude no one, but even more than that, a love that would motivate him to serve others, especially those where were the weakest and most marginalized in society. Sacrifice to others that ultimately meant the sacrifice of his own life.

But then Jesus, in mid-sentence changes what he says to his disciples; he says”
If you love me you will do the work that I do, no, in fact you will do even greater work! Say what, Jesus? Greater works than what you did? How is that possible?
Jesus did some pretty awesome stuff like multiplying a few loaves and fish to feed thousands. Have any of you tried this? He did some far out stuff like raising someone from the dead. Who’s done that? Come down and testify. He did some crazy things like turned water into wine: You think anyone tried this last night on prom night?

You, you who believe in me will do even greater works than I have done. Seriously, greater works…how? What is great about the works that I am doing?
What’s great about the work that this group of gathered disciples is doing? So many obstacles get our way of even attempting great works. Our busy schedules and lives. The seduction of comfort; the distraction of materialism. Our fear to engage the world. Besides, why doesn’t God do something. Have any of you seen the comic of these two guys talking. One says to the other, “I’d like to ask God why he allows all this suffering and this pain.” “Well why don’t you ask God that?” “Well, I guess I’m scared to ask God.” “Why? What are you scared of?”
Well, I guess I’m scared God’ll ask me the same question, back.”

If you believe in me, you will do even greater works than I do.”

While I was studying in Chile, I became friends with a student from Colombia, Luis. He was studying to be a priest. After months of conversations about everything but Colombia, I finally asked him, “What’s it really like?” He told me that several years ago, his younger brother was traveling with a friend on a bus from their home to a city some distance away. As they approached the city, the bus stopped at a checkpoint. Soldiers came on the bus and told my friend’s brother and his traveling companion to get off. Que bajen! Ahora! Once off the bus some conversation took place, which became heated. The bus pulled away. Days later, the two young men were dead.

As I heard him telling me this, fear and anger went through my mind; How can this happen? Were the young men involved in things they shouldn’t be involved in? How does someone have the authority to stop a bus and kill two passengers?
We can only imagine how difficult this was for my friend, Luis. His reaction: To join the priesthood to escape, to seek asylum? No. He told me that upon finishing his studies and becoming a priest, he planned to return to Colombia, serve the church and seek to bring love, justice, and hope to a place so full of violence and despair.

Jesus told his disciples that they would do greater works than what he did through the gift of the Spirit. They would become his hands and his feet…Christ for the world. The body of Christ. What does it mean to be part of the body of Christ? It’s kind of weird, when I think of all of us comprising the body of Christ, I think of Voltron. Do any of you remember voltron? The giant robot in the 1980s cartoon series Voltron: Defender of the Universe. Voltron was a giant robot but he was made up of smaller individual parts. These smaller components could function independently, and did some pretty impressive things individually, but it was when they came together—united with a common goal that they became the powerful voltron.

Could it be that the spirit unites us to serve this world in powerful ways, that we do actually do more than what Jesus was able to do? It can be easy for me to become overwhelmed by all of the injustices and problems in the world—poverty, climate change, war, hunger, education, homelessness, where does one even begin to share good news? What can I offer? Well, I can offer my life, and be united through The Spirit with believers from every time and place. With Luis, who is now back in Colombia serving God there. With you who live lives of loving service, making a difference in this broken world.
Let’s go back to the street kids in Colombia:
Okay so here’s the point,” said Jenny, whose father had been murdered a dozen years before for his work as a labor organizer. “WE have to show them that kids aren’t bad, that we help the neighborhood more than we hurt it. Maybe they’ll kill us, but at least people will know that la limpieza is evil; at least no one will think their justified.”

Responding to Jenny’s challenge, each kid vowed to do something for the neighborhood: several decided to dig a trench so that sewage wouldn’t run through the school playground; others offered to give dance classes in the park, so that people would see kids doing productive things; one proposed to put on their play for the community, while another said she could teach sex education to younger girls. The tone of the group had changed. And as the kids left after lunch, one could again hear the strains of a rap and a beat-box as they walked back to the bus stop to go home.2

These kids got it. They had lost one of their own, their friend Moreno and they were empowered—by the Spirit?—to greater works. We, too have lost one of our own. Jesus was murdered by the powers that wanted to silence his message of love and hope for the world. But we are resurrection people. We see the world through Easter eyes that know that death is not the last word.

Is God saying to us here in this place on this day, you will do greater works that these because you are my body; you are my hands and my feet? God is not saying to the poor and suffering to come find the church. God is saying to us, the hands and the feet go to where I’m suffering, go to the poor and to the hungry and thirsty and take me in.3 Go to Colombia to be an Accompanier like Barbara and Erik. Go to the lonely and depressed who live here in these neighborhoods. Go volunteer at Cool Closet just down Agua Fria and work with homeless and troubled teens. Go into our schools and help a kid with homework.
Go to the nursing home, go to the prison. Go to the community Garden to grow food for the food banks. Go and contact policy makers. Go and pray for justice to flow like a mighty stream and rightousness spring forth like might waters. Go and be the body of Christ. May we be a people that embody God’s love in this world that is starved for grace. May mourning and death turn to dancing. May life bend toward justice. In the end love wins because we have done even greater things!4

I’m going to ask Gerzain to share a little about what Missio Dei CARE, the committee focused on encouraging us and guiding us to participation to God’s mission in the world.
1 Kurt Shaw, “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground,”
2 Kurt Shaw, “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground,”
3 Shane Claiborne at Youth Fusion:
4 Shane Claiborne, “Trail of Mourning and Truth”

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