Finding Our Brothers and Sisters

August 17, 2014, Psalm 133, Genesis 45:1-15

The Genesis story is a funny place to begin – we are coming in mid-story. But most of you know the gist of the story – Joseph was the second youngest of 12 brothers, the sons of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. Joseph’s father made it clear that Joseph was his favorite, and has showered him with attention, including the gift of the famous many-colored coat. Joseph’s brothers grew resentful of this, and conspired to kill him, but instead chose to sell him to traveling tradesmen, who sold him into slavery. He then was falsely accused of attempted rape, thrown into prison, and then because of his gift of interpreting dreams, was rescued by the pharaoh, who elevated him to being his closest advisor. He has helped the pharaoh manage Egyptian grain stores preceding and then during a famine, so that while the area is in a prolonged famine, Egypt has grain. Joseph’s brothers have come to Egypt seeking grain, not knowing that he is there, and – well, there’s a lot more to the story but we just don’t have time for it – the brothers are standing before Joseph, knowing that he has power over their future, but not knowing who he is. [Read Genesis 45:1-15]

1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. 4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, "Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

“I am your brother, Joseph.” With those words, Joseph’s brothers found their missing brother – missing at their own hands. And they talked. They wept. They broke bread together.

Over the last 11 or so years, many of us in Winnebago Presbytery have found our brothers and sisters in Colombia. As many of you know, our presbytery has a partnership with Urabá Presbytery in Colombia. Five months ago I went to Colombia for the second time, leading a delegation of pastors from Winnebago Presbytery for several days of meetings with pastors from our sister presbytery, Urabá Presbytery. Urabá is mostly made up of rural areas, villages, and small cities (much like Central Wisconsin). Where we have 33 congregations in Winnebago Presbytery, there are only 16 in Urabá. We have had a partnership between our two presbyteries for over ten years, and while on this trip, ratified a new agreement for another 5 years.

Many people ask me about this partnership – do we help them? Or, people ask, how do we help them? It’s not that kind of partnership. This is a partnership of equals. We learn from them, they learn from us. As more than one of the Colombian pastors said during our talks together, “I so appreciate that this partnership is not about money, but is instead about mutual trust and sharing.” We pray for one another. We laugh together. We break bread together. We text on Facebook. We have found our brothers and sisters.

During the years of the partnership, there have been more than five delegations to Colombia, three of them to Apartadó, a city of about 250,000 near the Gulf of Urabá, which is very close to Panama. I have been on two of these delegations, both to Apartadó – the first in November 2008, and then this year. I am very grateful to be able to participate in this partnership and to meet with our covenant partners on behalf of the Presbytery.

Six years ago when I visited Colombia, I was part of a delegation of 3 ministers and 3 elders. We had come at the request of Urabá Presbytery to learn more about about the human rights and environmental challenges facing them as Presbyterians in Colombia. The most significant human rights issue in Colombia is quite significant, and yet is almost unknown by most Americans: it is the issue of the displaced, or as Colombians call them: Los Desplazandos.

Internal displacement is what occurs when citizens of a country are driven out of their homes, off of their land, and into exile within their own country. Six years ago, the country with the most internally displaced persons was Darfur, this year it is Syria. Those were both crisis situations. But both years, the second highest number of internally dispalaced persons was in our own Western Hemisphere, in Colombia, where roughly 4.5 million persons, over 10% of the population, are among Los Desplazandos. It is not a short-term crisis but has been an ongoing tragedy. We went to a displaced community in Barranquilla, the city where we arrived on the northern coast – a bustling city where maritime trade originated in Colombia. We also visited 6 different churches in 5 towns in the Urabá region, and met many people who had been impacted by displacement and violence. In Urabá Presbytery, los Desplazandos have been welcomed into church communities, where at least they have a community of love surrounding them.

In Colombia, the displacement is largely carried out by the paramilitary, but it is clear six years ago that they were not opposed by the government, and in some cases even get air support in the way of bombers from the government. The displacement is carried out by violence, and the threat of violence. For example, one small town, Saiza, which lay in the path of a planned hydro-electric dam, was cleared by the paramilitary. Of its population of 1500, 22 were killed in the violence – and others were approached with propositions such as, “It’s okay if you don’t sell us your home, I’m sure your widow will give me an even better price.” Saiza had been a primarily Presbyterian town with a vibrant church, so this particular incident greatly impacted Presbyterians in Urabá. But everyone is affected by the violence, and it was clear to us, although we felt safe with our hosts, that our hosts were keenly aware of the constant threat of violence, which comes not only from the paramilitary but from revolutionaries, and those involved in the drug trade. Why are people driven from their homes? In addition to making possible projects like the hydro-electric dam, many people are driven from small farms that later become part of palm plantations run by multinational corporations. Palm oil is found in 40-50% of household products, from many baked goods and processed foods, to cosmetics, to washing detergents and toothpaste. For decades the Colombian government turned a blind eye to how the land was cleared, so multinational corporations could establish their holdings at relatively low cost.

We were so moved by the tragic stories we heard. But equal in the impact on us of the horror was the inspiring example of the Presbyterians in Colombia. These are people who have been greatly victimized: by their own government, by paramilitary, by the violence attending what they call the narcotraffic, by multinational corporations – yet they do not respond as victims. They are people of hope and courage, of resilience and deep faith. They are warm, loving, and welcoming people, who continue to claim and build their own future, and the future of their church, which is at the center of life for them. They are confident that God is with them, and they are embracing their mission with courage and faith.

Their churches are small, without much in the way of decorations. No piano or organ. No warmly polished wooden pews – every church we visited had rows of white plastic lawn chairs. They don’t have much in the way of financial resources. But they have passion and faith and a deep commitment to each other, and the other churches. Many are involved in the presbytery’s women’s, men’s, or youth ministries.

This year, I went as part of a delegation of four ministers. We had four days of theological conversations, Bible study and worship. We shared our stories, we discussed topics such as idolatry, forgiveness, and challenges in ministry. As we got to know one another better, we found that we truly are brothers and sisters in Christ – we found many things in common in our lives in ministry. And we had fun together. We talked. We laughed. We broke bread together. And we prayed.

This year, for the first time in our partnership, we stayed in private homes, with our brothers and sisters from Urabá – their homes are simple. Many don’t have indoor plumbing. The home I stayed in was one of the fancier homes – there was an indoor bathroom, and the kitchen had running water. I stayed with the pastor of the Apartadó church and his wife. They gave me their bed for the nights I stayed with them, and they gave me the electric fan. They do not have much, but they are generous with what they have.

This year’s visit, six years later, came in the wake of a peace agreement in Colombia . Our friends spoke about living in post-conflict Colombia – it is a time of great hope, and they are aware of opportunities for new ministries, and the challenge of discerning how God is leading the Church at this time. The deacons in particular are shifting their work from service inside the church to outreach beyond the church, caring for people.

For us, mission tends to be one of the things we do. For the churches in Colombia, mission is who they are. They understand working for justice to be at the heart of what it means to be the Church. As one of the pastors said, “It is important that we are prepared to give and not just receive, receive, receive. We have been selfish. Jesus wasn’t in the temple and doesn’t like us to be in the churches because the need was and is outside. We are called outside of the church to be the bread of life. “ Another said, “What about the Church and the world? Jesus is in the world and we need to find Jesus in the world – not in the church.”

We can learn from our Colombian brothers and sisters about this – they who have so much less than we do both in their families and in their churches, are living out the love of God in many ways – providing after-school care for disadvantaged children, developing a ministry to provide pure water, feeding the hungry, standing alongside the homeless. Mission is not just something they do – we heard it again and again – it is who they are. The theme of our time together, a theme chosen by the folks in Urabá was La Iglesia de Cristo al servicio del mundo – the Church of Christ in service to the world. One of the wonderful things about the partnership between el presbiterio de Urabá and Winnebago Presbytery is that we are finding how much we have in common, despite our very different contexts, and realizing how much we can learn from one another. We are finding brothers and sisters.

One of the ruling elders from Urabá Presbytery will be coming to the United States next month as an International Peacemaker. Yasmin Mosquera is a 28-year-old single mom who was part of our ongoing conversations. She is active in the church, and it will be good to see her again. I am especially glad that our members will get to meet this vibrant, faithful young woman and learn about the life of our brothers and sisters in Urabá Presbytery. She will be visiting several churches in the presbytery during her visit here.

And we will talk. We will break bread together. We will laugh. And we will pray.

How very good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity!

May God continue to bless our partnership, and bring real peace to Colombia. Amen.