Sermon of Sunday December 29, 2002
Jesus the Scavenger
The passages we read for today are filled with songs of praise and joy and hope. While I find the story of Jesus birth, the fulfillment of hope, interesting, I sometimes find it hard to see how the gift of God, the fulfillment of hope, can break in or mean anything in my life today. Nevertheless, I think I experienced something this year that helped me see the gift of Christmas in a new light. My experience of the gift of God came in Guatemala this past July.
Through Faith at Work, twenty-four people came on different flights and arrived over the course of 24 hours from all over the United States. The next day, we immediately headed up to Chautzite, a small village in the highlands. The countryside was beautiful. There were many green fields — corn and broccoli and beans. Along the roadside, there was the occasional tethered animal. Sometimes we saw a cow or a scrawny horse tethered in the median of the road. There were strange pine trees looking like palm trees. While the government would not allow the trees to be cut down, the people would cut off all the branches that they could reach and use the branches for firewood. There were volcanic mountains rising to the sky.
We arrived in the village. The community greeted us. They had a small building that they used for a schoolroom. On the veranda of the building, they had managed to get a sound system and played music for us. We were there to build a new three-room school building and a lavatory. I fell in love with the natural beauty of the country around me. The rolling hillside dotted with small hut homes and the patchwork of a multitude of shades of green fields with their different crops. I would work on my part of the task of building the school. Periodically, I would take a visual break and admire the beauty around me and the beauty in the sky – the rolling clouds, the sunshine, the horizon of mountains.
I am not saying that their life was easy. They had to walk over a mile down a steep hill to get water. The women would spend an hour and a half each day to get the water they needed. They did their clothes washing near the well, pounding their clothes on rocks. They lived in small huts with dirt floors. They mostly ate rice, beans and tortillas. They added limestone into their flour as their source of calcium. They had little money.
The next day, we had a choice of whether to go to The Potter’s House and help serve the people who scavenged the dump or go back to the village. I chose to go to The Potter’s House.
The bus driver was not sure how to get to The Potter’s House, our directions sketchy, and the memories of some who had been there before dim. With a little Spanish, we said that we needed to go to where the buzzards flew. When we started to be in the neighborhood, Bill remembered some of the landmarks and turns. We found our way to the dump and The Potter’s House.
I have provided some photos for you to see what we saw. An endless stream of yellow trucks would take garbage into the dump. Hundreds of vultures flew overhead. There was a system in place for handling the garbage. The yellow trucks would drive in. The truck might have a few workers, but they would rely on the scavengers to empty the truck. The scavengers would clear out the truck and look for their assigned item. Scavengers had limited tasks. One scavenger would be responsible for plastic utensils. Another may pick up steel cans. Someone else collects shoes. The scavengers would sell their items to an intermediary who, in turn, would sell it to a businessperson. Over 10,000 people, many of them children, eke out a living by scavenging.
Many of the scavengers lived in huts near or on the dump property. Their huts were not much different from the huts in the mountains. Running water did come near to the huts, but would run out by around 10 am. I saw women in traditional Mayan garb scavenging the dump. They had left their mountain village in hopes that the city would provide them a better life. They had left so that they could make some money and possibly send that back to their village. These people had left the beauty of their countryside for the ugliness of the dump, equally hard living conditions and the possibility of some cash.
In the sight of all this, I found my heart breaking. I joined the rest of the group in making sandwiches that we would bring to the scavengers. We made hundreds of sandwiches and brought them and juice boxes to the people. Except for some of the children, the line of scavengers accepting our food was quiet. They rarely met our eyes. They rarely spoke. They took only brief breaks to eat and then disappeared back to their scavenging. The children would sometimes loop around again and ask for another sandwich. The scavengers’ life was (and is) a hard life. Luis, our Potter’s House staff person, asked if we understood what “poverty of spirit” was like. Here we faced it.
We reloaded the pickup truck and drove further down into the valley of the dump. The sweet sick smell of decay increasing as we went lower. The smell mixed with human feces smells. We gave out food to the scavengers working in this deep part of the dump.
After handing out the food, it began to rain and we planned to head back. The truck slipped on the steep roadway, forcing us to get out of the truck and walk. We walked through the dump back to the Potter’s House. We passed trash piled up like mountains. We walked near where the vultures were also feeding off the garbage. We walked past the carcasses of unknown animals: small dog? Rat? We slowly made our way across the acres to the Potter’s House. For me, reality hits when I walk through an experience – living and smelling it. I understood better the life that the scavengers lived. My heart kept breaking. Was giving them a sandwich for today enough?
I did not go back to the Potter’s House. I could not hope. In the face of such despair, such growing numbers of people making their living this hard and brutal way. I could not see how giving out a sandwich would quench or solve the bigger problems. I could not see losing the beauty of the mountains for the gain of some cash.
I went back to the village. The rebar work was nearly done and we needed to begin getting ready to mix and pour concrete. We needed to prepare the horizontal area for the concrete, but prevent the concrete from filling into the vertical spaces until after the wall was complete. Something had to be used to stop concrete flowing, but the material had to be flexible enough that we could remove it later. Paper. We needed paper to block the ends. Others still were working on their tasks. They asked me to find paper.
Suddenly, here in the mountain village, the request to find paper was a request to be a scavenger. I could initially engage in scavenging with some humor. I found some paper and brought it back. However, we needed a lot of paper. I went back out along the dirt road again. I wandered down the dirt road path, searching for anything that remotely looked like paper – bits of plastic wrappers or chip bags, ripped shreds of wet paper that used to hold cement, tin foil. These bits of paper I brought back, happy to have found something. We still needed a lot of paper and what I brought would barely plug up one hole. Out to the road again, wandering in the other direction. I continued to scramble and scavenge. Each trip bringing me closer to knowing what the life of the scavengers was like. I spent endless time watching the ground for my assigned item and tried to cover enough ground that I did not waste time. This time it was not for money but so we could continue our work on the school. Each trip taking away more of my humor. I was a scavenger.
As I sank more into being a scavenger, I saw anew the gift of God, the reason for hope. God had come to the world. God came to scavengers. God became a scavenger. Joseph and Mary in a stable were not much better off than the scavengers of Guatemala were. God chose to know our humanity. God shares our humanity. God is a scavenger. This is the first gift, giving me hope. Paul speaks in the passage in Galatians:
[4:4] But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, [4:5] in order to redeem those who were under the law,
The lesson learned about hope and God did not end there. I was making slow progress in scavenging for paper. As I searched, two men came down the road. In a combination of Spanish and gestures, I understood they were inviting me to join them and they were going to get paper. They wanted me to throw away the bits of paper that I was holding, but I could not. We went to a villager’s home. One family member was working in the corn and we said hello. We went through the gate to his compound of shacks. There were puppies and kittens running around. A woman was working in the yard and we greeted her. The man came out of his shack and my two companions explained what they wanted. He led us all into his home – a dirt floor; a double size bed in one corner; the walls covered with photos from magazines, including the Brazilian soccer team; a table with a homemade altar; and a beautiful wood armoire. In this small humble dirt floor shack, the armoire with elaborate carved wood doors and feet looked out of place. The man showed us all his paper – a bundle against the wall, bundles stacked on the simple shelves, paper in the armoire along with the family possessions. They decided on one bundle of newspaper and took it out of the house and to the porch area. I still held onto my bits of paper. From somewhere came a hanging scale, they weighed the paper and negotiated a price of 19 quetzals (about $2.25). We took the paper. After we left the home and were back on the road, my companions invited me again to throw away my bits of paper, trash really. I did. Now we had real paper. Now we could continue to work on the school.
Here is where I see the story of Christmas come alive again. God’s gift, this child Jesus in human form, offers the possibility of redemption. I am not a fan of the word redemption. It brings back too many memories of childhood catechism classes. Nevertheless, I have learned about the word "redeem" in a new way.
The two men paid for the paper for me, for my community. Redeem – to recover ownership of by paying a sum, to pay off. There really was no way that I would have been able to scavenge enough paper for the school project. That defeat is hard to face. It is not easy for me to rely on another to get me out of that state.
The purchase of the paper also allowed me the freedom no longer to be a scavenger. Redeem – to set free, rescue, to restore the honor, worth or reputation. The two men invited me to throw away my trash, take back my worth and my honor. The two men rescued me from my scavenger status. I am amazed at how hard it was for me to throw away the trash I held. Coming back to the school site with the paper felt like a victory march, a victory march I had not earned but gifted to receive.
The act of God becoming human offers to all the hope of being redeemed. Simeon and Anna celebrated this gift in the temple when they saw Jesus:
[2:27] Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, [2:28] Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, [2:29] "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; [2:30] for my eyes have seen your salvation,
At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Paul also rejoices to the opening of our worth and status as children of God:
God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, [4:5] in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. [4:6] And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" [4:7] So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Guatemala helped me to remember that I, even in my finery and comfort, am not more than a scavenger. Maybe I am not scavenging for paper right now. However, I am scavenging for other things to fill my life. And God has shared my life, known scavenging, and can redeem.
The Hebrew Scriptures read like exuberant songs of praise and rejoicing in the victory march. God’s choice to be a scavenger restores to us all the worth and reputation of more than scavengers. God’s choice to be a scavenger has bought each of us the item that we have been scavenging. Maybe we scavenge for love. Maybe we scavenge for peace. In Jesus, God turned the world upside down. God gives us new ways to love and peace. Let us continue to celebrate the gifts of Christmas – God in human form, God redeeming scavengers.