The Uproar in El Garzal (Sermon)

Sermon preached at the Foursquare Church in El Garzal, Simití, Bolívar
November 25, 2013

Acts 17: 1-8
1st Thessalonians 3:9-13
I want to share with you all tonight about one of the earliest Christian communities… a community called Thessalonica. I want to share this word with you because when I read about Thessalonica in the Bible, I think of El Garzal… I think of all of you.
Could El Garzal be the Colombian Thessalonica?
The first time the community of Thessalonica is mentioned in the Bible is in the book of Acts, chapter 17. In many translations this 17thchapter of Acts is titled, “The Uproar in Thessalonica”[3], so I have entitled this sermon, “The Uproar in El Garzal”.
Let’s read Acts 17: 1-8:
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.’ Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’ The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this.
The Thessalonica story is so interesting! In fact, in the chapter just prior to the one we just read from, we are told that while Paul was in Troas in Asia he had a vision where a man from Macedonia appeared and said, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul understood this vision as a call from God to go and proclaim the good news in Macedonia. So Paul and his companions packed their bags and hopped on a boat from Troas to Philippi (where they had some problems and were even imprisoned) and on through Amphipolis and Apollonia before reaching Thessalonica.
Now Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia (in what is today Greece)… in other words it was part of the most powerful and important empire of the time… the Roman Empire. When Paul and his companions arrived to Thessalonica they must have been impressed with this city on the rise… full of foreigners and large Jewish colony.  Thessalonica’s development was due to the fact that it was an important Mediterranean port and also at the crossroads of two very important trade routes for the Roman Empire. Thessalonica is what we might call a “corridor”[4] for commerce.
Acts 17 tells us that Paul was in Thessalonica for quite some time. He preached at the temple several weeks in a row. And according to 1 Thessalonians 2:9 Paul and Silas were there long enough to need jobs: “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.“
And there in Thessalonica, Paul proclaimed the good news of Jesus of Nazareth… and as you all know the good news that Jesus proclaimed that day in Nazareth was:
-Good news to the poor
-Release to the captives
-Recovery of sight to the blind
-and to let the captives go free.[5]
And there in Thessalonica Paul preached that this same Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah the Jews were expecting to free them from the Roman Empire. And many believed and joined Paul; Jews, Greeks, men and women. Even distinguished women… such as the women of El Garzal.[6]
And this same Jesus of Nazareth is whom we proclaim today in El Garzal!
But it seems that this did not please some of the leaders of the Jewish community in Thessalonica, who organized a group of thugs to start an uproar. And an irate crowd went looking for Paul and Silas at Jason’s house where they were staying. And when they didn’t find Paul and Silas, they dragged poor Jason and others that were there before the authorities. And of what did they accuse them? Of being rebellious! In the Reina-Valera translation they are accused of unsettling/disordering the world. Some translations have them being accused of revolutionizingthe world… and yet others have them turning the world upside-down. There is no doubt that Jesus’ gospel has a transforming power. And not just the power to transform individual lives, like that which transformed Saul into Paul… but also the power to transform entire communities… like Thessalonica and like El Garzal.
And then the text tells us that not only were they accused of being rebellious, but also of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” [Acts 17:7b] Now this is a very serious accusation! This has political implications… and we know that the Roman Empire often punished those found guilty of sedition, of rebelling against the emperor, with death. And though we don’t know for sure, and the Bible does not report on it, it is believed that Paul eventually died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Roman Empire about ten years later in Rome.
We do know that the danger of this uproar in Thessalonica caused Paul and Silas to decide to leave and continue their missionary journey. They didn’t want to further endanger the lives of Jesus’ new followers in Thessalonica… knowing that the cause of gospel liberation would bring enough challenges and risks for the community there. You see, in every time and place, those that truly live the values of the Kingdom of God are considered a threat by those who use their power – be it political power, economic power or military power – to exploit those with less power.
And when people from the US, who have heard of El Garzal, ask me about you, I have to tell them that you are still living in difficult times as well. That in El Garzal there are accusations, threats and that the leaders suffer from socio-political persecution.
I tell them that there are leaders in El Garzal who sometimes have to leave for a while to protect their own lives and those of the community. And that like Paul, they love their community and desire deeply to return.[7]
I tell them that you too are being persecuted by those who do not believe… those who do not believe in God’s justice… those who are yet trapped in the logic of accumulating property and wealth here on earth.
I tell them that there is still an uproar in El Garzal, that the Garzalans are turning Colombia upside-down. That where there is injustice you are fighting for justice. I tell them that there is a community in El Garzal that has understood that the gospel of Jesus Christ means being faithful to the values of God’s kingdom, just as Jesus proclaimed them in Nazareth. And that though the path is difficult, that the community in El Garzal has grown weary.
The Bible tells us that the community in Thessalonica also suffered persecution. And that when Paul left, he too was unsettled and he wanted to return very badly… but he couldn’t. Later Paul decided to send his friend Timothy to visit Thessalonica, to give them a word of encouragement in the midst of the persecution they were experiencing. Paul anxiously awaited news of how they were doing. Just as you all have friends in Bogotá and the United States who are anxiously awaiting my return to hear how you are doing.
When Timothy returns, he gives Paul a very positive report about the community in Thessalonica and this motivates Paul to write what we now know as the first letter to the Thessalonians. It is a beautiful letter, a personal letter, and a very pastoral letter. It’s also the oldest letter that we have from the apostle Paul… in fact it is considered the oldest part of the New Testament… written around the year 50 C.E.
I’d like to read you just a little portion of this letter… just five verses…
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 3: 9-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen.

These verses are like Paul’s prayer for the community at Thessalonica. And they have become my prayer for you. And such is the prayer of so many sisters and brothers in the faith in the U.S. and Canada, in Switzerland and India[8], and who knows how many other parts of the world who have heard of you. First we thank God for you, for the community of El Garzal… and we always ask God to allow us to visit. And then we ask God to make you to abound in your love for each other and for all. In other words we ask God to strengthen the ties of community in El Garzal, based on love… love that extends to everyone. Yes, the very love that causes us to pray for our enemies, knowing that one day they too will convert to God’s kingdom of justice. And we pray asking God to strengthen your hearts in holiness that you too may be blameless before our God.
Because it is firmness of heart, it is audacious, limitless love that makes Christian community possible… even when the powerful are opposed to the gospel message of God’s kingdom of justice.
Verse six says that Timothy brought Paul the “good news” of the Thessalonians “faith and love”. They, just like you, knew that faith and love go hand in hand. And that faith with love and love with faith in God’s justice will never be defeated.
For all of this is why we give thanks to God for the uproar in El Garzal… this is why we give thanks to God for these men and these women who are turning Colombia upside-down… this is why we too want to be part of building God’s kingdom in El Garzal… and this is why we will continue returning to El Garzal… and this is why we are convinced that God´s justice will prevail in El Garzal and across Colombia… that the violent will not have the final word… that with God’s help we will defeat this war without resorting to violence… that by the strength of your faith and love the violent will convert their swords in plowshares and that here in El Garzal you will sow in peace and you will reap justice.
This Thursday in the United States, your brothers and sisters there will celebrate Thanksgiving… a day that is connected to the autumn harvest, prior to the cold days of winter. It is a day to give thanks to God for all the blessings that you have received throughout the year. This Thursday I will drink hot chocolate and give thanks to God for this year’s cocoa bean harvest in El Garzal[9]… and for the blessing that you have been to me, to my colleagues and to Colombia.
In this spirit, I would like to close by reading you Paul’s words to the community in Thessalonica in 1st Thessalonians 1: 2-5:
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
So thank you community of El Garzal for being the Thessalonica of Colombia. Thank you for your faith, thank you for your resistance, thank you for your love. Stay strong! We are with you. God bless you.

[1] The “big” town across the Magdalena River.
[2] The pastor of the church.
[3] I don´t actually know how common this chapter title is in English translations, but the Spanish equivalent is in the most commonly used Spanish translation (the Reina-Valera). I took the English translation from the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible – NRSV (San Francisco: Harper Collins), 2005.
[4] Here I used the word “corredor” in Spanish which is a very clear reference to a drug-trafficking (and other contraband) route. El Garzal is in a drug (and gold)-trafficking corredor. In this set-up about Thessalonica, both the arrival by boat/water and being on a commerce/trafficking route would be fairly obvious parralels to El Garzal for the listeners.
[5] Luke 4:18
[6] A bit of context that you can’t see in the video, is that in this Foursquare church, they still segregate seating by gender. Men on one side of the sanctuary, women on the other. I had not planned on mentioning this about distinguished women in the text… but in the moment, it was an attempt to dignify/value the women of El Garzal.
[7] To the listeners this was a clear reference to Pastor Salvador who currently cannot live in the community due to death threats from paramilitaries. Pastor Salvador was in El Garzal that day for the first time in three-months, and had arrived wearing his state-provided bullet-proof vest.
[8] Switzerland and India were last minute ad-libs since there were accompaniers from those countries there at the church that night.
[9] Their most important crop.

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