Just a few weeks ago I helped organize a group of university students as we headed to Guatemala on a cultural immersion experience facilitated by a group called CEDEPCA, which serves in a variety of ways from seminary education, to women’s rights, to community organizing. One of our stops during our weeklong learning trip was to a center called LA RED KAT, facilitated by an organization called DESGUA. This place was amazing! Picture this: you open the heavy metal doors to disappear from the busy city streets, and enter a courtyard filled with graffiti murals, scents of fresh foods being prepared, and music from local musicians. As you begin to walk through the halls, you are greeted by street performers, artists, beat poets, and yoga instructors. This is the essence of LA RED KAT; an organization devoted to re-instilling new life within the young people of Guatemala.
Our group had the privilege of meeting one particular young man named Giovanni. One may hesitate when meeting Giovanni for the first time. He is an imposing figure with tattoos, a shaved head, and athletically built. The truth is, you would be right to hesitate! Giovanni is a professional boxer, and has an amazing story to tell. Giovanni is Guatemalan; well, at least he was born there. He actually was raised in the US for most of his life; he and his dad immigrated when Giovanni was three years old. He grew up in California and eventually moved to the Denver area for high school. Giovanni never did very well in school, but he did have two passions: music and boxing. He would take both of these passions to amazing places as he would record his own hip-hop albums while climbing the ladder of the professional boxing world. Yes, Giovanni had a rough past involving some crime, but now as a young adult had a family, a job, and a future—he was beginning to figure it all out.
One day everything changed. He was pulled over for a traffic stop…a traffic stop. The next thing he knew, he was locked up in prison, and within a few days was visited by an officer from ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement). Giovanni was deported back to Guatemala within days. He found himself in a country that he knew nothing about, with his entire life, his music, his boxing, his family, all in the United States.
Could you imagine waking up one day in an unknown country, being unable to get back to all that you know, all that is familiar, all that you love? Could you imagine not being able to say goodbye to your children or family members? Everything you were struggling for, everything you were working for, gone within a few moments. Giovanni would say he lost all that he loved; he lost his life.
This sense of loss is something that I feel we all go through at some point or another. We may lose something we cherish, like a piece of jewelry or our favorite picture. Or maybe we suffer more serious loss, like that of a marriage or even a family member. But how many of us have lost EVERYTHING? For many in this world, this is an experience that is all too true; all too real. Each day we turn on the television or read the newspapers to hear of thousands and thousands of children, women, and men leaving all that they have, their jobs, their homes, even their family, for a chance to escape the hellish conditions of warfare, political corruption, disease, and absolute poverty. If they are lucky, they will make it to a new land. If they are unlucky, they risk being returned to the same place that threatened their life just previously, or even worse, they do not survive the journey. And for those who make it to this new land? Many will face a lack of safe shelter and food, trying to survive in a world they know nothing about, with people speaking a language they know nothing about, only to be perceived as a threat to those who call themselves citizens.
Our reality in the United States may not be as tragic or traumatic as some of these stories. We may not have a story to share like Giovanni. However, each of us does know what it’s like to experience loss. We know what it’s like suffer. We know what it’s like to face death.
This morning’s scripture verses both share a story of death, and ultimately new life. In a most similar story and set of circumstances, both the stories of Elijah and Jesus share with us miraculous stories of bringing the dead to life. Both stories share details of a grieving mother and a dead son. Both stories share of the prophet calling the young man to life. In fact, both stories even have the son being given back to the grieving mother. What amazing stories!
I would like for us to meditate on the story from Luke this morning. Many scholars agree that this story is so strongly tied to that of the Elijah story that this is not mere coincidence. What is the connection between Jesus and Elijah? What does it mean to proclaim Jesus as prophet amongst other titles?
Again, we read that as Jesus is entering the town, he sees this boy being carried out, followed by the grieving mother. Jesus has compassion. He then goes to the boy on the bier, or the stretcher, and says, ‘Young man, I say to you rise!’ It was then that the crowd proclaimed Jesus as a great prophet, and they glorified God and shared this news with all who would listen.
Again, what an amazing story! What an amazing…incredibly challenging story to read this morning! Yes, we read this story with amazement at what God has done. But then we read today’s headline of how so many people were killed…senselessly…within the past few hours in places like Syria, Iraq, and East Cleveland. We read of miracles! And we read today of millions of people living without adequate shelter, food, or safety. How does this miraculous story affect us here in the year 2016? Sorry, but we’re just not seeing anyone being raised from the dead these days!…or do we?
What I love about both of these stories is how God uses these miracles to share a much larger, even more amazing story, for all those who are willing to listen. Ultimately, these stories will point to the primary example of death to new life as we hear the story of the execution, death, and ultimately the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. We are an Easter people. We celebrate a God who conquers death, and offers eternal life to all who embrace such Good News.
And this is where this morning’s stories of being raised to new life become the Good News that we have been seeking. Friends, the Good News is this: it is God who calls us to rise into new life each and every day as we are called to live as followers of the risen Christ. Within this Good News we are called to die to our old selves, and be reborn in the Spirit of the living God.
A perfect example of this is the story of Giovanni. You may be thinking to yourself, ‘Well, wait a minute Jeff, you said he was deported to Guatemala where he knew no one and he left his entire life in Colorado where he can never return again!’ Well, yes, but as with any good boxing match, it’s not over until you hear the final bell. Giovanni would be located and embraced by the group DESGUA, who run LA RED KAT, and who work directly with individuals who may not see a life ahead. Because of the love and concern of the organization and the individuals who run it, Giovanni would be located in one of the Guatemala City neighborhoods where he was living in abandon homes. He would then find a safe home where he could slowly rebuild a life, that only weeks before was shattered. Slowly but surely, Giovanni found new life with this community. He now works as one of the main leaders of the organization, and one of the primary voices, as he shares the message of new life to the nearly 60,000 migrants who are deported back to Guatemala from the US each year. He has been able to rekindle his music career, and even his boxing. Yes, Giovanni is a story of death to new life.
Sisters and brothers, we are no different. Maybe we don’t have a life as tragic as that of Giovanni. Maybe we don’t know what it is like to lose everything, only to have to fight and scrape for survival each day. But as human beings and as Christians, we know a thing or two about loss, about death, and ultimately about new life. We point to a resurrected savior who lost his life in order that our may be saved. And it’s because of this story of death that we are able to point to new life each and every day. It’s because of this story of death that we know that death does not have the final answer. It’s because of this story of death that we sing praises to the living God, who calls us to rise to new life.
May we be compassionate as we experience death in this broken world. May we be present with those who grieve and suffer great loss. And may we be witnesses to such new life all of our days in the Good News of God’s love for the world in the saving love of Christ Jesus. Amen.