…now hear these words from the music of the beloved George Michael…
‘Cause I gotta have faith
I gotta faith
Because I got to have faith faith
I gotta to have faith, faith, faith
–George Michael, ‘Faith’
Picture this. It is a GORGEOUS Saturday afternoon in the highlands of Guatemala. Our mission team is being led on a tour by Melvin, our guide for the day. Eleven of us in all are strolling across a grass filled field, with various outgrowths of trees mixing along the rolling hills, as well as various outgrowths of tourists popping up for pictures here and there. We are walking through what was once a thriving community some 500 years ago; now a collection of ancient ruins composed of old walkways, a few remnants of buildings and temples, and some interesting platforms outside the temples.
Melvin smiles, ‘This is where the Mayans would make their sacrifices.’
‘Yes,’ our guide tells us with an enthusiastic smile. ‘This is where they would make sacrifices to the sun or moon…or even the wind. They would burn some corn…or animals…
‘Or humans?’ I asked.
‘Yes. But don’t worry, they only sacrificed their enemies.’
‘Oh good,’ I sarcastically thought to myself, as I tried to imagine this land just a few hundred years ago. ‘Only enemies.’ Now I had this scene from the movie ‘Indiana Jones’ in my head as the temple priest is pulling out the heart of the living sacrifice, and I could feel my own chest tighten a bit. Here we were, a group of 11 from Los Estados Unidos, university students and pastors, walking through a most breathtaking place on a most breathtaking day, and all the while realizing just how different life seemed…and still seems to be in this country just on the other side of Mexico.
As humans we really want life to be simple; to make sense. We, as North Americans (keep in mind the Guatemalan people also are from America…Central America), go through great lengths in order to control as much of this world as we can. For most of us we want a world that is safe, and beautiful, and filled with few, if any, surprises. Did I mention safe? We have created home security systems that allow us to see inside our home from our cell phones from just about any location. We have created little monkey backpacks for children who tend to wander off; the backpacks have extra long tails that serve as a leash for the parent to hold onto. We have warning labels on everything from packs of cigarettes (obvious) to ‘Happy Meal’ toys at the local McDonald’s (not so obvious). It is every parent’s hope and dream that their child grows up safe, healthy, and happy. And if they can find a well paying job with an attractive spouse, and maybe have a few kids of their own and raise them in the church, well, then even better. And what’s so bad with these hopes of security and predictability anyways?
I was contemplating these aspirations of our US culture as our group walked the streets of Xela, a small city in the western portion of Guatemala. As we stumbled along the broken sidewalks that were originally designed to be wide enough for one person, yet now containing regular pedestrian traffic three abreast including street dogs and clumsy Americans, I began to take in the reality for many in Guatemala, and the rest of the world. We saw children sitting on the laps of parents or family members riding their small motorcycles through the daily congestion of most aggressive cars and buses. There will be no car seats for these children, or helmets or seatbelts for that matter. We saw women of all ages early in the morning carrying mounds of foods and street wares across city parks in order to set up shop for the day, so that they may make enough money to feed their family that evening. We saw cute little puppies and packs of dogs roaming the streets in search of their next meal; there were no canned meals of organic meats waiting for them at home, if they had a home at all.
The walk down the city streets is just the tip of the iceberg for the daily realities of many of the Guatemalan people. Our group would meet with community leaders, pastors, and teachers, as we would hear of daily poverty and drug abuse, government corruption, murder, kidnappings, inefficient education, sex trafficking, deportations, and child labor. This is a DAILY REALITY. EACH AND EVERY DAY.
‘Man,’ I thought to myself. ‘It must really be tough to be a Christian in Guatemala.’ Where are people able to relax from the stress of the day? Where can their children be safe? How can Guatemalans believe in a God who wants the best for us when every day they encounter poverty, disease, and violence?
All of these thoughts and questions were running through my mind when I encountered our lectionary scripture texts this week. Our first reading comes from 1 Kings; a story of one of the great prophets of our tradition, Elijah, as he challenges the priests of Baal in the barbeque grudge match of all time. Elijah wants to prove to Ahab the king that he is worshipping the wrong god, and in fact, the LORD is the only one to be honored and worshiped. In what amounts to one of the greatest displays of prophetic trash talking, Elijah mocks the priests and followers of Baal as they are unable to set the offering ablaze. Then, in a scene that many magicians would be jealous of, Elijah tells the people to drench his offering with water so that surely the odds of it catching fire are minimal at best. Yet, despite the cries of the priests of Baal and the water, the LORD sets ablaze Elijah’s offering,
38Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
In what may seem like quite a different story, the Gospel of Luke takes us to Jesus as he enters the town of Capernaum. One of the head Roman officials sent for Jesus, as one of the slaves of this officer was near death. However, as Jesus was approaching the house the officer’s men met Jesus with a message. The centurion said there is no need to come to the house…
But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
So what in the world does a story about a barbeque and a centurion have in common with not only each other, but with Guatemala? All three of these stories talk about this notion of ‘faith,’ and this is what I would like for us to meditate on this morning.
What is faith? We read in Hebrews 11:1-3
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Elijah wants to first point out the idol worship from those of Baal; then point out the supremacy of the LORD. But the people need a sign, and what better dramatic presentation than being able to alight a water logged sacrifice aflame with no matches? There is no trickery; no deceit—only God.
Luke points to the fact that it is faith that is most important; not necessarily the right ancestry, or even the need to be physically present. There is no need for spectacles where crowds can gather to ‘hmm’ and ‘haw’; faith moves in small, unperceivable, ways, as the healing of the centurion’s slave illuminates.
So what does faith look like in 2016? What does faith look like here with a bunch of Presbyterians in Virginia? What does faith look like in other places…like Guatemala?
Faith looks different to different people. Some need giant altars of fire like a magic show. Others just need the word like that of the centurion.
Faith is found in the work of La Puya, an organization that works for the peaceful protest of indigenous peoples against the mining of their homelands. Some of these groups have been protesting for years against these multi-million dollar mining companies. When I asked Ana, one of the university students about how her religious beliefs influence her work for these people, she said it was faith that allowed La Puya to continue each day against these giants of industry.
Faith is found in a room full of youth at a local church in the streets of Guatemala City, just a few doors away from drug dealers. These children envision a future where they are able to better their homes and communities.
Faith is found in the work of the women at Corazon de Mujer, who escaped persecution and violence, and now work for financial and emotional sustainability.
Faith is found in the artistry of RED KAT, an organization that has created a safe space for artists of all backgrounds to build Guatemalan and Mayan identity and pride.
Faith is found in the eyes of children finishing work on the streets, and then heading to school at CEIPA to receive an education so that perhaps their own children will not have to work on the streets.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith is about sharing in a vision of God’s Kingdom realized here on earth. As the centurion told Jesus, ‘But only speak the word,’ so we, too, ask Jesus to speak the word into our lives and hearts as we await a new day, a new reality, a new Beloved Community.
And this is the Good News today: God gives us this vision of the future; not because it is some fantasy of some unrealized utopian society, but because it is part of God’s Kingdom building here on earth, today.
Here is the incredibly affirming…and challenging part of life. God is at work within us through the gift of faith—everywhere.
Faith is found in giant barbeques of sacrificed bulls thousands of years ago, and faith is found in the silent prayers of children as they prepare for bed here today.
Faith is found in adventures that will lead groups of mission teams around the world, and faith is found in the simplest of words from our savior.
Faith is found in the safety of a quaint Sunday Presbyterian worship service in Christiansburg, Virginia, and faith is found in the bustling streets of Guatemala.
In all of these things, it is God who is already at work within us and the world. And for this, we are thankful to God who moves and breathes within us. Amen.