1 John 3:11-18

Imagine you are living a prosperous life in an educated, civilized society that has existed for thousands of years.  Then, one day, your country is invaded, your libraries are destroyed, many of your friends are slaughtered, and even more are wiped out by imported diseases.  This is the story of the Mayan civilization, the indigenous Indians of Mexico and Central America.

In Guatemala, the Mayan civilization thrived for centuries before the Spanish conquistadores invaded in the early 1500s.  The Spanish established a colonial capital and ruled for 300 years.  Guatemala declared independence from Spain in 1821 and in the 1850s, began shifting to an agricultural export economy.  In the 1870s, the government began to seize land from the Mayans and put it into the hands of large land owners.  This began the process that has led to a vast discrepancy between rich and poor.

In 1950, the democratically elected president of Guatemala initiated an agrarian reform program that sought to redistribute the land more equitably, but the anticommunist McCarthyism that was prevalent in the United States spread rumors that the president had close ties to the Soviet Union.  Four years later, the CIA bombed Guatemalan military targets, forced the president to resign and installed a new president.  Tension between rich and poor mounted until 1960, when a civil war erupted.

The war lasted 36 years, and during that time 200,000 Guatemalans were killed.  Most of them were impoverished peasants who simply sought a better life.  Three years after the war ended, the United Nations Truth Commission reported that during the war, there had been a deliberate policy of genocide against the Mayan population.

Guatemala is roughly the size of the state of Ohio and most of its 13.4 million people are desperately poor.  Seventy-five percent of the indigenous population lives in poverty and one-third of all Guatemalans earn less than this [hold up two dollar bills].  For those not sitting on the front pew, these are not twenties; not tens; not fives.  One-third of all Guatemalans earn less than two dollars a day.

Our twelve member mission team represented New Castle Presbytery, but thanks to the encouragement of Westminster members who had been on past Guatemala trips, six of us were from our church family.  The day we flew into Guatemala, the sky was sunny and clear with only an occasional cloud.  As we approached the airport in Guatemala City, we gazed at the rugged mountainous landscape.  Small fields of crops climbed the sides of the mountains and tiny homes clung to the rocks.  Before landing, we spotted our first volcano jutting skyward.  Over the next seven days, flat land was rare; most of the time we were travelling either up or down, twisting around the mountain curves.  Hats off to the Upjohn pharmaceutical company for creating Dramamine!

After landing and collecting our luggage, our mission team stepped out of the airport and walked to the mini-bus where each day we would spend several hours in close quarters with each other.  However, before we climbed into the over-sized van, we received our first taste of the poverty that pervades this small nation.  A 10 year-old boy, who looked more like a 7 year-old, begged us for money, while an older man with no legs sold us pencils from the wheelchair he had converted into his mobile shop.

Over the course of the week, we visited small mountain villages where we worshiped with the Mayan Presbyterians.  They fed us with their very best and offered us gracious hospitality.  They are a beautiful, gentle people, who, despite their conditions, but because of their faith, cling to hope.

Why were we there?  We can find poverty within blocks of our church.  Why travel so far from home to meet destitute people?  Because God calls different people to different ministries.  God has more than one mission for each of us, and multiple mission projects for our church as a whole.

Why are some Westminster members drawn to feeding the hungry, while others are led to building homes with Habitat for Humanity?  Why are some persuaded to spend a few hours with the homeless on bitterly cold nights, while others feel the need to purchase backpacks for low income children?  Why do some fill Christmas boxes for the needy, while others mentor students at risk of failing?  Why do some care for the neighbor down the street, while others build partnerships with neighbors in another part of the world? 

We respond to the whispers of God that challenge us to meet the needs we encounter.  And the fact that we have poor people in our country who are hurting can never be an excuse for failing to help people who happen to live beyond the borders of our nation.  When God looks upon the earth, God does not see the lines we have drawn dividing North America from Central America.  If we think of ourselves only as citizens of the United States, we may not want to help people in Guatemala.  But followers of Christ are not tied to only one nation; we are united with brothers and sisters around the globe.

In this morning's passage from the First Letter of John, the writer reminds his community of faith about the heart of Christ's message. He says the core of the Christian gospel is this: we should love one another.

Each of us possesses different gifts.  Some are skilled teachers, some are especially adept at extending care to others, some possess gifts of music, some are extraordinary leaders, some are patient listeners, some can work marvels with their hands, some are insightful visionaries and some possess gifts for inducing health and wholeness.  We appear to be born with certain gifts, but we also acquire new ones as we mature.  Our upbringing, our education, our life experiences and our attitude can shape and further develop our gifts.  But regardless of what unique gifts we possess, every follower of Christ is to have one thing in common: we are to love one another.  And since each of us has unique gifts, the way we express our love will take different shapes, but the fact that God commands each of us to love others is non-negotiable.  An uncaring Christian is an oxymoron.  By definition, a faithful follower of Christ is someone who is kind, considerate, respectful and seeks what is good for others.

When our relationships are sound and events are falling in our favor and we are involved in something fulfilling, loving others comes naturally.  However, when life is difficult and people are disagreeable, or when people live in a distant land and speak a different language and are uneducated and have a thousand needs, love requires a concentrated effort.

The writer of the First Letter of John knows that loving others is the key to being in harmony with God, but he also wants to avoid the romantic notion that love simply happens on its own.  He reminds followers of Christ that love often requires a deliberate and disciplined effort.

Further, he knows that love is not simply expressed in words, but rather in concrete action.  Authentic love requires sacrifice.  Love calls on us to focus on the needs of another and to respond to those needs.  The author asks the rhetorical question: How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods - look into the mirror and look at your neighbor - and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Westminster Presbyterian Church will never reduce its focus to only one mission project because God urges different people to respond to different needs.  Many people will say, "I get that; but why Guatemala?"

For one, there are many fellow Presbyterians there.  In 1882, the Presbyterian Church in the United States was invited by the President of Guatemala to establish the first Protestant presence in Guatemala.  Over the years, Presbyterian congregations have spread throughout the country.

Another reason we are involved in Guatemala is because several years ago, former Associate Pastor for Mission, Kevin Wansor, invited Westminster members to discover this Central American nation. When Kevin and his wife adopted a child from Guatemala, they encountered the extensive poverty and desperate needs.  So, as the pastor for mission, he invited others to take part in a shocking, intercultural experience.

Another reason that Westminster is involved in Guatemala is because New Castle Presbytery has established a partnership with Presbyterians in Guatemala.  The focus of our trip was to formally establish a presbytery to presbytery relationship with the Mam Presbytery, 17 congregations in the western highlands.  This will provide us a way of better assessing the needs of particular churches.  Their presbytery will help us prioritize the needs of individual congregations.

The reason we are establishing a relationship with the Mam presbytery is because there are many Guatemalans who live and work in southern Delaware who come from this part of Guatemala.  They come from the Mayan community which is among the most impoverished people.

Another reason we are involved in Guatemala is because of the extreme poverty.  There are millions of poor people in the United States and we need to continue to help them, but few in our country must carry whatever water they need to their house.  Few in our country must go outside to the bathroom.  Few in our country think of a concrete block house with a corrugated tin roof as a step up.  Few in our country choose not to send their children to school because they must send them onto the streets to beg, to sell trinkets or to polish shoes.

Different people have different gifts and God calls each of us to different ministries.  That is why Westminster provides numerous options for helping others, so that each of us can support the ministries that are right for us.  Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Carmelite nun and Spanish mystic said, "Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which he is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which he is to bless us."

The First Letter of John is addressed to followers of Christ who fail to grasp the implications of Christian love.  The author was exasperated with Christians who could talk eloquently about love and charm people with their words, but ignored the basic needs of people who were hurting.  He sought to help us understand this fundamental truth: God's love abides in every person who sees a brother or sister in need and asks, "How can I help?"

Many of you know I was born in Oklahoma, as was Westminster's former pastor, Jon Walton.  Let me tell you about a truly remarkable pastor from Oklahoma.

Stanley Rother was a soft-spoken farm boy who grew up in a tiny community in Oklahoma.  He was a Roman Catholic who believed he was called into the priesthood, so after college, he entered a Catholic seminary.  But Stan was not a great student and he struggled with languages.  After his first year, the seminary did not invite him back.  However, two priests who knew Stan saw something in him, so they intervened and enrolled him in another seminary.  He worked hard, made passing grades and was ordained.  After a few years, he was assigned to a church in a small farming community, Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. 

Father Rother thrived in Guatemala.  He drew very close to the Mayan people in his congregation; he helped them improve their farming techniques, and this man who was known for having trouble with languages, learned not simply Spanish, but also the very difficult Mayan language of his people.  He fluently preached all of his sermons in their native tongue. 

Stan served in the seventies and eighties when civil war engulfed their country.  He was not a political person, but he was the shepherd of a poor flock who was at times the target of death squads.  One night he witnessed one of his students being kidnapped by the secret police and he experienced great mental anguish over not being able to save him.  The young man's body was discovered a week later.  There were visible signs that he had been tortured before being killed.

As danger mounted, his family and fellow priests in the United States urged him to leave Guatemala.  Rother insisted that he would leave if there was ever a direct threat.  Then, in January of 1981, he received word that his name was on a death list.  "He was a prudent man who loved life and wanted to live as long as possible"1 so he returned to Oklahoma.  But the entire time he was in Oklahoma, he was restless.  He felt he needed to go back.  He had lived in Guatemala for over 12 years and that had become his home.  He knew his flock needed its shepherd. 

After a couple of months, he received news that his name had been removed from the death list and he immediately headed back.  He had no illusions about his safety.  What drew him back "were the concrete needs of his people.  He thought more about them than about himself."2

Four months later, on July 28, 1981, three masked men slipped into the church after midnight.  At gunpoint, they forced a young boy to show them where Father Rother was sleeping.  They entered his room and tried to kidnap him, but Rother was not about to let that happen.  He knew that it was better to be killed on the spot than to be tortured.  Further, he did not want the people of his congregation to suffer the anguish of searching for his body.  He yelled at the intruders, "Kill me here!"  And after a struggle, they shot him.3

Our group visited the room where he was murdered and saw the bullet hole in the floor.  We also saw the shrine in the sanctuary where the congregation buried his heart. 

It is unlikely that any of us will ever have to die for our faith.  But the story of Father Stanley Rother asks each of us: Am I truly living my faith?


  1. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Love In a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story, (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1985), p. 60.
  2. Ibid., p. 67.
  3. Ibid., p. 69.