August 1, 2010
Text: Luke 12: 13-21
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But Jesus said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a
judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the
abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable….
Last Monday, I was sitting on a bus in the Highlands of Guatemala with David Novello, as we threaded our way past the giagantic potholes created by Hurricane Agatha.. I asked him what had surprised him the most about our pilgrimage.
He answered: “The richness of the land and the people here. I had a certain image of poverty that probably comes from the urban landscape in the U.S., but that’s not at all what I experienced here in Guatemala.” I’ll let you ask David for his own details when he returns from Tikal, where he’s been doing some sightseeing.
The Gospel reading assigned for today begins with a normal request for fairness when someone asks Jesus to exert his authority and make his brother divide their inheritance. Jesus doesn’t let himself be caught in the middle of that family feud over stuff. He quickly steps away from their focus on possessions by telling a parable: A man is busy building bigger barns to store his things when the angel of death arrives, demanding his life that very night. “You fool,” God says, “These things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
It’s a situation nobody likes to think about.
It could be argued that the man was just being prudent, taking care of his family, stashing something away for lean times, hedging his bets. It’s something we’ve all done or would like to do if we could. We call it “buying insurance.”
As usual, Jesus wants us to look beyond our physical needs and greed to catch a glimpse of God’s realm, here and now. I think that’s what David was seeing in La Puerta: beauty and bad teeth, close friends and hard work, respect based on practical skills used for the common good. For me, it’s a reminder of the treasure we have in one another.
Since many of you have been on one of the ten pilgrimages that Peter and I have led to Guatemala for Faith At Work, I’m going to stay with this story a bit.I would give this sermon a title: “Where Is Your Treasure?”
The hunt for God’s treasure in Guatemala begins with PAVA. It’s a tiny organization that began as a response by a few friends to starvation in the country-side. During the civil war that tore apart the countryside of Guatemala for 30 years, government troops burned crops in an effort to starve the guerilla forces into surrender. Many indigenous villagers were caught in these raids, their homes and crops destroyed. When the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, the basic economic power structures in Guatemala were not altered much, but the indigenous people had gained the right to vote, pay taxes, own land and receive a primary education. The question was how.
As the war came to a close, PAVA decided to focus on building schools, water projects and bridges in the Chimaltenango district, which was especially hard-hit by the conflict. With the help of an American fundraising arm, PAVA has now helped 50 communities build a new school in the past 20 years — starting before the war officially ended. We connected with PAVA through Paul Johnson, Doug Wy-Jo’s uncle, who is a retired construction engineer with a heart for helping. He was a member of the PAVA board when we began, ten years ago.
We’ll fast-forward to this Spring. You may remember the difficulties we encountered when Lumunos closed its office here in Falls Church last March and our chief helper, Bill Johnson, was suddenly out of work. Although he planned to come on the trip, he couldn’t help with coordination. Then, in May, Hurricane Agatha brought torrential rains to Guatemala and a volcano blew up, covering Guatemala City with ash that turned roads into slippery goo. Meanwhile, we learned that PAVA was about to cease operations because the US board was no longer functioning.
But Peter and I had experienced God’s treasure in Guatemala before, and we felt certain that a way would open, so we began picking up the pieces as we saw them drop.
By mid-June, we learned that the roads had been cleared to our worksite and everyone who signed up had bought their plane tickets. We were fairly sure, however, that this would be our last trip. Doug sent us a departure blessing, naming it as the last Lumunos pilgrimage.
Once there, we learned that La Puerta had been waiting for more than a year to get legal title to the school land which the villagers had purchased by pooling their funds. They were waiting for PAVA to raise the $15,000 needed for materials and a mason to build a safe school for their children. Of that amount, Seekers provided $7,000 in the 2010 budget and the current pilgrims provided an additional $5,000 from their trip registration. From Seekers, our group this year included David Novello, Peter and myself. We were joined by former Seekers too: Caren and Sallie Holmes, and Aeren Martinez and Jeannine Caracciolo, who are now living in Austin TX. When the fundraising arm of PAVA ceased operations this spring, many of you, as former pilgrims, provided the rest of the needed funds. By the end of June, two weeks before our departure, we knew the project could go ahead!
Yes, Jesus warned against getting too focused on material goods. But what he really warned against was greed. And I would say that the opposite of greed has been the response of present and former pilgrims — to step into a breach left by others — with open hands, open hearts and open purses.
Another treasure: Local leadership
Those of you who have been to Guatemala will remember some version of the two-hour bus ride on bumpy, steep roads to reach the work site. This year, heavy rains and mudslides had seriously damaged the Pan-American Highway by undercutting the outside lane in many unpredictable places. Rocks and signs made driving it an obstacle course and we actually felt safer on the small mountain roads where we could see the damage coming. Our bus driver, Juan, not only got us there and back safely, but worked with us on the job site every single day. Somehow, he was finding God’s treasure there also.
When we arrived in La Puerta, we were ushered into rows of white plastic chairs under a bright blue tarp. The children were lined up, ready to go with their presentations. The teacher was there with her clipboard and schedule. Everything seemed ready to begin, … — except that they didn’t start.
Through Aeren, we learned that the mayor had not yet arrived. We sat still for awhile, and heard that maybe he wouldn’t be coming afterall.
By this time, our two teenagers, Caren Holmes and her friend, Leah Hammond, had begun learning the names of the children. On the other side of the tarp, we watched a man clamber up a power pole and connect the huge rented speakers with jumper cables from his truck — and not be electrocuted in the process! Soon there was music, and we began to invite the children to dance. Order soon dissolved into hilarity as BJ began printing pictures and handing them out. Finally, the dignified male elder of the village, dressed in his stetson and cowboy boots, decided we would go ahead without the mayor.
That decision was the first of several that showed us Adolfo’s authority and standing in the village. The ceremony began with prayers by two Pentecostal ministers, speeches by local leaders and several presentations by the children. The mayor and his entourage did finally arrive and white plastic chairs were found for them too, but I think the village had shown us their determination to move ahead with or without the political system.
Finally the speeches were over and I was invited to cut the ribbon with the mayor to begin the project. Because somebody had asked me if we were paid to come, I decided to say that we had come as volunteers, paying our own way and contributing financially to the school because we believed in “Dios et ninos.” Aeren told me later that the mayor actually apologized for not knowing that we had contributed money for the school. For me, it was a chance to follow Jesus and name the real reason why we came.
Adolfo’s wife, Theresa, presided over an abundance of food for all. Together, they clearly offer this village steady and supportive leadership. In addition to rice, beans and tortillas, we had several kinds of squash, carrots, green beans and chilis every day. In this village, they grew sugar peas for export on plastic-covered mounds. “Do you ever eat those?” someone asked. “Never,” Theresa replied. “That’s our cash crop.” They seemed to be farming that collectively.
When we went to work, we soon learned that there were two seams of granite running through the school site, as well as hard limestone patches. By the third day, Adolfo had most of the men of the village out there with pick-axes, working with us. He was there every day, doing whatever needed to be done along with the younger men. More than any trip before, we were building this school together … or at least trying to reach the first concrete pour before we left them to do it alone. The realm of God felt close at hand all week.
Living with uncertainty
On Thursday, we took a slight detour on our way to La Puerta, in order to see a finished school. It was the 2003 project in Xecobol, where the Seat Family, the Silverstones, the Banksons, and Sandra Miller had all been there to help. The school was brightly painted and the classrooms full of eager children. Built for 70 students on a steep hill-top, there were now 140 children, from pre-school to sixth grade. In front was a large, covered play area with screens to keep the soccer balls from hurtling down the precipitous hillside.
However, as we climbed the steep driveway, we could see a twisted basketball hoop and stanchion sticking out of a major mudslide right next to the school, their basketball court dislodged and crumpled like paper.
Of course it would be better not to build in such a place — but where else is there? For the villagers of Guatemala, there is no security. No place to build “bigger barns.” Long-term health care is the family. They live with uncertainty every day, close to the heart of God. I think that’s the treasure David Novello was feeling.
At our final banquet, last Monday evening in Antigua, one of the founders of PAVA said to me “Your steadiness kept us going. When Pacaya blew up and Agatha came, we didn’t think we could build a school this year. But you just kept sending emails, telling us you were coming. It was the encouragement we needed.”
Then she told us her good news:news: That Aeren Martinez, formerly a steward here at Seekers, will be joining the PAVA-US board as a fundraiser. With her language skills and her experience here with Oikos Credit and raising funds for Friendship Place, Aeren has also given us hope that this will not be the last pilgrimage to Guatemala. We don’t know the details yet, but we’ll keep you posted.
In Jesus’ parable, God said to the householder, “You fool! Tonight your life will be demanded of you. Who will own these things then?” Death is not the only time we have to stop and take stock of where our treasure is. Endings come in many forms. Our pilgrimage promised to be such a conclusion.
Jesus’ parable was not just a warning against greed and accumulation. It was also an invitation to assess our values, shift our priorities, and focus on important relationships. That’s been the importance of Guatemala for us. May it be so for you too — as we gather around the communion table today.