Honoring Cries: Honorio Llorente and Blind Bartimaeus by Duane Ediger

BartimaeusIn honor of the founding story of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (read more here), we share here a sermon on Bartimaeus by Duane Ediger, friend and CPTer (cpt.org). In this message at First Church of the Brethren, he reflects on experiences in Colombia while serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams. 

Message given to First Church of the Brethren, Chicago
October 25, 2009

Mark 10:46-52 

I want to invite you to explore with me today the story of Bartimaeus and his loud cries. 

As we reflect on this passage in light of some related stories I will share from Colombia, my hope is that we will be better prepared to honor echoes of Bartimaeus’ unwelcome cries shouted out around or through us today and in days to come.

I’m going to put out some questions right here from the start, and then address them one by one. 

Why does Bartimaeus shout?  Did he know that people wouldn’t like it?  Was it the best way to behave in that situation? 

Why were people in the “large crowd” so harsh with the poor, blind beggar?  What was wrong with Bartimaeus’ shouting out loud, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” that led to people’s ordering this blind beggar to shut the heck up.

What was miraculous in this story?  At first glance, there’s no question – Jesus answered the blind man’s request to see again.  Is there more to it than that?  We’ll look at that.

On Columbus Day, twelve days ago, as a CPTer I accompanied part of a continent-wide observance called a MINGA, a Mobilization in Defense of Mother Earth and her Peoples. 

On the banks of the Sogamoso River a crowd of some 700 Colombians, including Indians, raised their voices to challenge the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam there. 

Excavation on the mountainsides above us had already begun.

Among the people raising their voices on October 12 to protect the river and local communities from damage the dam would cause was a man named Honorio Llorente.  President of the local town council of Sogamoso Bridge, Honorio prior to that had worked with and organized farm workers to protect their rights. 

Honorio’s first name starts with the word Honor, which is spelled the same in Spanish as in English.  His last name, Llorente, if it were a Spanish word, would be a form of Llorar, which means to cry. 

Honorio Llorente was one of the voices honorably crying out for healing from a 517-year legacy of blind domination and destruction since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, whose proud name still holds its stamp on his country’s name of Colombia as it does on our capitol, Washington DC, the District of Columbia.

A week ago yesterday afternoon, Honorio and his town council met with representatives of the construction company the Colombian government had contracted to build the dam.  With them he once again raised his concerns about the social and environmental impacts the dam project would cause.

I will return to Honorio’s cry and responses to it.  But first let’s take a closer look at the story of Bartimaeus.

First, this man’s name.  Bartimaeus, as the scripture indicates, means son of Timaeus.  Timaeus, it turns out, is a Latin form of the Greek Timaios, which means – coincidentally enough – honor.

At first glance, the reaction of Jesus’ followers to Bartimaeus’ shouting “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” – sternly ordering him to be quiet – seems overly harsh.  I think Bartimaeus had at least two reasons to expect more or less the reaction he got. 

How many of us brace ourselves when a beggar approaches us, hoping we won’t need to say anything?  Being a blind beggar, Bartimaeus is used to people playing avoidance games like treading softly around him or walking far enough away that his cup is out of reach.  From a distance it’s also easier for passersby to blame his problems on him.  We invest in silence toward Bartimaeus in order to remain ignorant of his troubles.  That ignorance allows us to go about our business as if his troubles were not our concern.  The thought that Bartimaeus might have anything to say to us that’s worth listening to is a threat to our comfort.  The blindness of Bartimaeus has made him invisible to others.

But the words Bartimaeus shouts out loud in Jericho are more than just uncomfortable.  They are dangerous.  And he knew it.  Why?

About 65 years before Bartimaeus’ encounter with Jesus, King Herod had destroyed the Jewish synagogue in Jericho and built himself a winter palace over its ruins.  A carrot and stick approach of public works projects and heavy handed policing kept the people under control, but never healed their resentment of Rome’s attack on their religious and national identity.

Herod also had built aqueducts that diverted precious water from Jericho’s springs away from household and farm irrigation use in order to water the palace gardens.  As the center for one of three Roman administrative and taxing districts, Jericho in Jesus’ day would have been crammed with soldiers.  Paid informers spread throughout the neighborhoods would report on any person, group or activity that might question the legitimacy of that era’s Operation Enduring Freedom: the Roman occupation. 

In that context, what does it mean for Bartimaeus to call Jesus “Son of David”?  David – King of Israel; Jesus, Son of David, the next King of Israel – But Israel is no country.  So they used the term, King of the Jews.  Just like today there are Kurds with no independent Kurdistan, Palestinians with no Palestine; only Palestinians and Kurds.  And leaders among them who don’t sell out but stand up for their rights are easily passed off as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

So Bartimaeus’ shout to “Jesus, Son of David,” as a direct challenge to Caesar’s authority, was about as close as this blind man could come to throwing a shoe at the Emperor on a live worldwide TV broadcast.  And the followers knew they would be judged if they tolerated Bartimaeus’ subversive cry.  However honorable they may have believed it to be, they were playing with fire.  So as Mark writes, many sternly ordered him to be quiet.  But Bartimaeus shouts even louder, “Son of David, Have mercy on me!”

This is the first miracle.

And Jesus stands still.  And he asks the shushers to call this dangerous, blind Son of Honor to come to him.  And Jesus listens to what Bartimaeus wants. 

Another miracle.

I am going to return to the story of Honorio Llorente, but I want you to notice that we have had two miracles in the story of Blind Bartimaeus, and he isn’t even seeing yet.  “Go, your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells Bartimaeus.  The faith was manifest, was shown to be real even before Bartimaeus saw again.

Make sure you appreciate these miracles, because sometimes they are all you see.  The first miracle: after he was told to shut up, Bartimaeus shouted even louder out of his faith that the sovereign God is stronger than the destroyer and usurper of God’s house and more merciful than the host of charity balls for the disadvantaged.  The second miracle: someone heard, sought out, listened to and honored Bartimaeus’ most unwelcome cry for healing over which fear had lost all control.

Honorio Llorente, the Sogamoso Bridge Town Council President, left his meeting with other town council members and the dam builders last Saturday afternoon.  At 7:30 that evening, Honorio’s cry was met with an even sterner order to be quiet.  A man entered the public place where he was talking with some friends and shot him dead.  Like ninety-nine percent of murderers in Colombia, the assassin got away; and Honorio joined the ever-expanding list of martyred leaders.

I want to share a couple of miracle stories...

Las Pavas

About 500 people, 123 families in Southern Bolivar province, most of whom had been forced to flee their homes in other parts of the country, began in the mid-1990s farming on land that had been abandoned by its owner, a relative of Drug lord Pablo Escobar, after Colombian forces killed Escobar in 1993.  There they grew corn, squash, cocoa and other food crops for a living. 

Colombian law provides for squatter farmers like the families of Las Pavas to apply for title transfer of lands.  The families did this and in 2006 the government agency responsible verified that the farmers met the qualifications.  But as happens too often in Colombia, the agency did not follow up on the paperwork and in 2007, palm oil grower Daabon Organics bought the land.  After several attempts to evict the families, Daabon finally succeeded in July of this year to do so.  Now they are living in a nearby town, dependent on support from several nonprofit organizations for their subsistence. 

Our delegation accompanied the families on a visit back to land Las Pavas.  There we saw hundreds of uprooted trees, some being burnt, others placed in ditches or wetlands.  Waterways were being altered to dedicate every possible bit of land area to monocrop oil palm cultivation.  The farmers showed us areas outside of the Las Pavas estate where just a few years ago Lake Escondida had been.  The lake, supposedly government protected for public use, had been drained and neat rows of oil palm planted in its place. 

Unlike many dispossessed in Colombia, they did not quietly accept the unjust treatment of them and of the land from government and private entities.  With legal assistance they have asserted their legitimate claim to the land in a case that Colombia’s Constitutional Court will decide soon whether to consider.  The situation of the Las Pavas farmers has also been publicized in the national media because Daabon and other large palm oil growers received government subsidies that were supposed to support small farmers.  This scandal is threatening the job of the current Agriculture Minister and the presidential aspirations of the former Agriculture Minister who oversaw the first round of misspent subsidies.

Cosmetics producer The Body Shop purchases 90% of Daabon’s palm oil.  Both companies have commitments to socially responsible and sustainable production.  Body Shop customers now have a unique opportunity to hold Daabon and the Body Shop accountable to these commitments.

The Las Pavas families have raised their voice in faith.  Probably due to the high profile of their case, they have not been silenced like Honorio Llorente was.  And even though they have not received the land to which they have a legitimate claim, they have already given themselves a new name: El Milagro – the Miracle – a community not afraid to cry out for fair treatment for themselves and the land.  The promised land on which their feet are firmly planted is the solidarity shown by people throughout Colombia and around the world who have heard and want to honor their cry.

The second story is about a pastor from a community with similar issues to those of Las Pavas.  The community is still on the land it has worked for some 15 years, but the drug lord is pushing for their removal.  I had three opportunities to visit with this Pastor, during which he talked extensively about the challenges of his pastorate, of overcoming social barriers, carefully and diplomatically protecting his community from threats by illegal armed groups and growing a church under trying circumstances.  I sat captivated for hours listening to the working of God in answering prayers and saving the community.  It was not until the very end of the third and final visit that I learned that his daughter, who was present during the visits, had suffered a medical condition that restricted her breathing, left her unable to walk far, that doctors said was not within their ability to cure and that nearly broke the family financially.  At several points she had been close to death.  Then the community gathered for prayer, laid hands on her and in a day the condition left her.  A miracle.  But by far not the only one for which the pastor’s family and community give thanks for God’s faithfulness.

Finally, as I sat outside the airport gate in Bogotá, a man in his late twenties two seats down opened a conversation.  He looked a little nervous, and said this would be his first international flight.  A soldier in the Colombian Army, he was headed to Columbus, Georgia (another tribute to Christopher Columbus!) for training.  “…at the former School of the Americas,” I said.  He had been in the Army for ten years, and was in a training capacity for the last year.  I listened with compassionate attention as he shared the pain of seeing comrades and civilians hurt by mines and in combat.  I told him about CPT’s work in Colombia and other armed conflict zones.  I told him that the school he is going to has been a point of protest for twenty years since the killing of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and daughter in El Salvador by graduates of the school.  I mentioned that I may be coming down to Columbus to join my voice with thousands of others, including some Colombians, calling for its closing.  “I don’t know what they will say about us inside the base,” I told him, “but I want you to know that we are there to protect the well being of each person, including each soldier, and to call for an end to abuses and injustice.”  I offered him my card and invited him to call me.  “Maybe if I go we can get together when I am in town,” I said.  “I would like that,” he offered.

Pray for this soldier.  Pray for the families of Las Pavas and for the well being of land.   Pray that Daabon and The Body Shop may honor their commitments to treat people and lands justly.  Pray for the Sogamoso Bridge community and hundreds who are not made afraid to shout honorably by the silencing of thousands.

Honorio’s miracle, that of Las Pavas and the ongoing struggles for well being of land, water and communities are works in progress.  When one of a community is silenced by death or fear, will the rest be scared into submission, or will we participate in miracles of love, casting out fear as we cry out honorably and honor the shouts of others?  This is a question that we as a church and members answer with our lives in this and other neighborhoods where we live and as members of a global body of Christ.