Sermon Inspired by Nicaragua and Scripture
Sermon preached January 13, 1991 at Trinity Covenant Church, Rochester, New York
Scripture texts came to mind as we moved among the people of Nicaragua last week. The first is the account of the exodus of Israel from Egypt, in which God makes a distinction between Israel and Egypt. Leeched onto and dependent on Egypt, Israel is pried loose—kicking, screaming, and complaining. “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” they asked (Ex. 14:11). Those who grew tired of manna and wanted meat, raised God’s anger and God smote them with the meat between their teeth (Numbers 11). Prying loose and becoming distinct has been a theme for the Nicaraguan people, and all of Central America. The successful overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 by the Sandinistas was like a final escape through the Red Sea.
But another text that came to mind is one found toward the end of the long story of David’s rise to power in Israel. As you know, David started as a kind of guerilla fighter gathering, as scripture says, “every one who was in distress, and every one who was in debt, and every one who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them” (I Sam. 22:2) like Augusto Sandino or Carlos Fonseca fighting in the mountains for those in distress. But David succeeded as you know. The guerilla fighter was popular: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (I Sam. 18:7). He came to power and developed a coalition of tribes stronger than at any time in all of Israel—so strong that a royal theology grew around him. He became an ideal king, and thereafter Israel waited for a king like David.
But toward the end of this long story of the ascendency of David, covering all of first and second Samuel, there is a story that stands out, perhaps put in by a later editor, “a Saul advocate,” intentionally to darken the bright image of David. It is the story of Rizpah (II Sam. 22:1-14). There is a famine in the land and David consults with God on the cause. It seems that Saul, less tolerant than David of foreign elements in Israel, had put to death Gibeonite foreigners. David has heard the complaint that there is blood guilt on Saul’s family and he takes vengeance on his old enemy, or is it by instruction of the Lord? He goes and finds seven sons of Saul, gives them to the Gibeonites who hang them on the mountain before the Lord.
And it was the first days of harvest, but Rizpah, the mother of two of the sons of Saul begins a watch over the bodies of her sons. From early May until Autumn when the rains fall, she lies up there chasing away birds and other animals and with sackcloth protects the bodies of her sons in protest, out of the bond a mother feels with her sons. A widow, a woman, a nobody protests against the royal David who always got what he wanted. On the rocks under the bodies of her sons, she protests against the mighty David and the royal theology. David hears the protest and, in conciliation, takes the bones of Saul and Jonathan and those hanged, returns them, and gives them proper burial in the land of Benjamin. Rizpah, a protest against the royal David.
One day in Nicaragua we visited the war-wounded, those wounded in the war fighting for freedom from Somoza and the national guard. Our group included mothers of the sons crippled or dead. One mother wished to speak especially to us. She invited us to her church to hear the children sing. There she later found us and spoke to us after the Sunday night service. She said, “Please give this message to the American people. We cannot understand why such a large and wealthy country would want to fight against such a poor and small country. Our national airline has one airplane, and one dollar equals 3,000,000 codoba. Why do the American people feel they need to come into our problems? The division between the contras and the government was our problem. Please ask the American people not to interfere.” It was Rizpah, the mother, protesting against the royal David and like David this great nation getting what it wants. A “royal theology” grows up around it, and one small country and mothers of war wounded and dead speak out, standing in protest and defiance over the graves of their dead sons. She was a strong and solid woman who smiled and cried and bravely spoke to the Americans.
“O Nicaragua, Nicaragua!” On Monday we were to meet with a pastor who was helping poor farmers organize a reforestation cooperative. The pastor forgot. We took advantage of being 20 minutes from the ocean and drove over to the beach. As we stood there, our leader for the week, Manuel, not too happy that the pastor had forgotten, began: “O Nicaragua, poor Nicaragua, where so many of the children have only one meal a day, a tortilla with a little rice and a piece of fruit,” he said in his Spanish/English, “and it is getting worse.” The currency is inflated each Monday; the present government now no longer looks out for the poorest of the poor; and the center of Nicaragua’s largest city, Managua, still lies in ruins from the earthquake of 1972—the cathedral clock still today, 28 years later, remains stopped at the hour the earthquake struck—and millions of dollars of aid, used by Somoza himself, leaves the city still in ruins.
There is one more text. We have read Ezra-Nehemiah in the adult class in the weeks past. And we have heard the story of what was necessary for Israel to find life again to restore the community. The ending of the book of Ezra, when families are separated for the sake of survival of the community, is sad and wrenching. There is a long list of all who had married foreign women and who put them away with their children. How sad and terrible, like the tearing out of your heart, they send away their children and wives. So radical a sacrifice is not necessary we would say today, and only for a moment can it make sense to do such a thing before it becomes foolishness. But so they acted in order that Israel might live again. And we remember those who helped to build Jerusalem’s walls and especially those who lived on the borders of Israel’s enemies and were endangered by such a commitment.
So, also, have the Nicaraguan people given that their community might be formed again.
There is Tremina who welcomed us for supper on Monday evening, modestly and simply. We joined her, her husband who is struggling with alcoholism, and her four children in a dimly lit room with a few North American Christmas decorations. She walked with us to church, strong and believing. There is Tom Loudon, who lived in Nicaragua during the worst time, working for Witness for Peace. There is a gathering of pastors, in little Jinotepe, south of Managua from every speakable protestant group. They gathered beyond differences in scripture interpretation to try to respond to the poverty of their people. They all gathered in a windy building. Were their eyes weathered or sad or what? They said, “Our faith has been made strong by our lack, our poverty. What makes your faith strong?”
The people who have lived there for millennia working the land—the people—are the ones, more than the Sandinistas, who have sacrificed so that their community might live. The Sandinistas have an aura, a mystique about them, and their pictures are painted on many walls. But it is the people who will make a new life. It is deeply inspiring to see what they have done against such odds, in spite of Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush, Mr. Oliver North, Mr. McFarland, and Mr. Poindexter. They—the people—have mounted up. “How is it the faith of the American church is strengthened?” they asked.
Prying loose and becoming distinct, yet kicking and screaming. Nicaragua is distinct, at least, from North America and from colonialism. How will the North American church become distinct from its culture? Rizpah, a mother weeping for her sons against the royal David who got whatever he wanted. Nicaragua, guarding her children against the royal David, but will he listen? And such sacrifices for Israel to live again. How their poverty has strengthened their faith! Will we make—will the North American Christians make—any sacrifices for the sake of our faith and for the building and strengthening of our Christian community and witness?
Lord God, let us hear the voice of Christians from other lands. Help us not to resist your Holy Spirit, but to read scripture, to listen and pray, and to become distinct, different—salt and light. Amen.