Reflect and Marvel with Me

Passage: Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Date: August 28, 2005
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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Last Sunday, we read the first eight verses of Romans 12 as one of our lectionary texts. Today, we hear the rest of the chapter. In context, these words are not a list of do's and don'ts, of rights and wrongs, rules we are supposed to follow. Instead, they are our deep responses to being loved in Christ Jesus. Simply, their context from the first eleven chapters is this: because we have been reconciled to God in Christ Jesus, because we are saved by God's grace and not by our own good deeds, because it is while we were yet sinners that Christ died on our behalf, because we have been baptized into a new way of life in Christ Jesus, therefore, says Paul, because of all "of these astonishing mercies of God, present your very selves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God... Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good, acceptable, and perfect." This is how the chapter begins. Because we know God's immense love in Christ Jesus, let us be shaped by that love in all that we are and do. Be spiritually formed by God's Spirit. Then, Paul gives examples of what this might mean. Last week's reading focused on the Christian community, how we are to exist together. Today's portion continues that inward look for four verses, and then turns outward. As people whose name is Christ-one, listen, listen to what it means to live into such a name. (Rom. 12:9-21)

From childhood, Romans 12 has never let me go. There is a constant wrestling in me about not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewing of my mind in Christ Jesus. Traveling to Colombia last month, talking and associating with people of faith there, these words took on even more profound significance. (By the way, if any of you are wondering what happened to the Matthew reading, it is coming.) Twice the size of Texas, with a population of 45 million, located just south of Panama, Colombia is a beautiful Latin nation. Boganvilla and impatiens grow wild on the roadsides. Coffee, citrus, and bananas are raised in the same orchards, and yes, Colombian coffee is shade and mountain grown. Landscape ranges from Carribean and Pacific coastlines to jungle-covered Andean mountains. The capitol, Bogota, at 8500', boasts 8-9 million residents, from extremely wealthy to grindingly poor. Westminster has had a missional relationship with a Mennonite Peace and Justice group there for more than two decades. The Presbyterian Church in the US began work in Colombia nearly 150 years ago. While traditional Protestant denominations, Pentecostal groups, faith missions, and mega-churches exist, Colombia is the most Roman Catholic of Latin American nations. In its recent history, the people of Colombia have been engaged in a civil war for nearly 60 years. There are more than 3 million internal refugees. If the same were proportionally true in our nation, we would have 18-20 million refugees. 64% of the population lives in poverty, 33% are indigent and do not have enough to keep alive. The war has gone on so long, and the issues so complex, that often, people do not know who is who or what is being fought about. There are several large armed groups: guerillas and paramilitaries and gangs and police and the military. It is difficult to identify which is responsible for which violent acts, because each uses tactics of terror and intimidation, murder and abduction. Yet, riding along a beautiful, twisting mountain road outside of the capitol, I would not have had a clue, as cyclists peddled up the steep road at 9,000', as birds sang, and farmers tended small fields.

In some senses, for an outsider, Colombia's brutally violent reality lies just below a very thin surface. By barely scratching it, as we did, the nation's chaos and heartache assaulted me. I have never known the level of violence that is there. It is truly unimaginable. It feels evil, a word I rarely use. Tragically, in our world, Colombia is only one example of evil's powerful presence. Yes, drug trafficking, which involves huge amounts of our money at the highest levels of society, runs rampant. Adding to their problems is Colombia's supply of oil, largely untapped, which tweaks US interests. Compounding the situation is our nation's military aid and military advisors, sent ostensibly to fight drugs. After Israel and Egypt, Colombia receives the largest amount of American aid. Government corruption thrives. The wealthiest, a tiny minority, believe it is their God-given responsibility to protect what they have, and to control as much as possible. The wealthiest almost always do, including here. In the midst of this chaotic inhumanity, Presbyterians, Mennonites, and a variety of other Christians struggle with what it means not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed in Christ. Phrases we just heard, like: "live in harmony with one another," "do not repay anyone evil for evil," "never avenge yourselves," "live peaceably with all," "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good," these phrases take on momentous weight.

Last December, US Presbyterians began an accompaniment program there. We now send people trained as international observers, to accompany threatened peace workers, congregations, and ministers around Barranquilla, a port city on the northern coast. Colombian Presbyterian pastors have been killed, put on death lists, had to leave their congregations, and been jailed, simply because they care about the poor, the displaced, because they preach that God values all persons. Preaching and prayers must be done carefully. In the last three years, there have been at least 70 protestant pastors and church leaders killed, martyred by the different armed groups. About 350 churches have had to close, and whole congregations have been displaced. Friends in Christ, what does it mean for Christians, for the church to actually stand for non-violence? In the face of rampant violence? What does it mean for you, for me to risk peaceful resolution to conflict? Our denomination's moderator, Rick Ufford-Chase, following a recent visit there, proclaimed, "The church will stand with the poorest, the displaced, with those who have the most to lose, and simply insist that it will be the church." The first question of membership in our denomination is, "Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?" That question is a Romans 12 question, and it sounds very different to me now. I know people who answer that every day. We should be as well.

One evening, about a dozen of us were gathered for dinner at Judy Sprunger's brother's home in Bogota. Amparito, a frequent guest, works in a Mennonite program in one of the city's barrios, mostly with displaced people. It is one of many, filled with hopelessness, without sewage, with water a couple of times a week, with few jobs, terrible schools. Amparito, whose name means "little shelter," provides activities for children: after school arts, crafts, theater, and music. In the process, small woman works with them on forming values, on self-esteem issues. Family violence and abuse are rampant, with unemployment, poverty, and pressures by both guerilla and paramilitary groups. After our dinner, she was asked how things were going there. Her descriptions were deeply moving, sleep-robbingly disturbing. In this particular barrio, a paramilitary group from the plains is seeking to gain control, ostensibly to keep guerillas out. She said that in the last few weeks, they had begun shooting 14-18 year old boys, three already that week. They were killed if they wore an ear ring, if their hair was not short enough, if their clothing did not meet specifications, if they were out of their homes between 6p.m. and 6a.m. I looked across our dinner table at 14-year-old Lucas, Judy's nephew, as he listened in wrapped attention. Amparito went on to say that the same paramilitary group had begun picking up 14-19 year old girls at 6 p.m. They were returned to their families at 6 a.m., having been forced to spend the night in a brothel. If a father tried to stop them, he would be killed. And I thought of my 19 year old daughter. A handsome young volunteer from France, whom I met at church the next Sunday, had been threatened with death in that barrio because he had his jacket on inside out.

It is immensely humbling to me to see that in the face of that horrific evil, followers of Christ risk themselves on behalf of others. They seek to overcome evil with good, leaving the vengeance to God. And somehow, they are empowered by grace, over and over again, to do so. I am deeply changed and inspired by their witness. We are connected with them, because they help us understand what it means to be faithful, even here. At this point, I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:21-26. Listen.
Even as we pray for our sisters and brothers there and elsewhere, let us pray for ourselves. We have been baptized into Christ. We do belong to him. May God help us not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed in Christ. May our own minds be renewed, that we may discern here what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect. In the name of and to the glory of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.