Updated: May 16, 2020
The Rev. Bob Holum
1st Corinthians 11:23-26
It’s about a meal: Nicaragua trip 1994.
My bishop gave me leave to accompany two delegations of Maryland Lutherans on solidarity visits to an impoverished but inspiring Lutheran community in Nicaragua. Between delegations I stayed with a local family, studying Spanish and experiencing the life of the city. One weekend I attended a convocation of Latin American Lutherans from Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, and El Salvador. Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista former President of Nicaragua, who had just been defeated by the U.S. sponsored Contras in a long and bloody civil war, had a chance to tell me to my face how he felt about my country. Fortunately, my Spanish was weak and I only understood about every third word.
Then, for respite, I got to go with a catholic youth group from Managua, the capital city, by pickup truck to Jino Cuao, a tiny and marginalized rural village far to the north near the Honduran border. It was a long drive, very hot, many volcanoes. Jiño Cuao was hosting a fiesta that weekend. The villagers, using hand-made adobe, had built two small churches, and lay folk had prepared 20 children in the two parishes to receive their first communion. On the way there, we travelers from the big city were supposed to pick up a priest from the cathedral in the regional capitol, Léon, who would officiate at the worship services. But, at the last minute, the Bishop forbade the visit. The village had been Sandinista, the hierarchy had sided with the Contras. After a hasty consultation, the leaders of the trip asked me, a protestant minister, to lead the worship. It felt awkward, but I couldn’t say no.
Before the worship services were to take place, the two youth groups met on the concrete slab outside the little cinder block city hall. The tradition in Nicaragua is that the hosts provide the meal and the guests provide the entertainment. The teenagers had prepared a skit entitled “Hell and Heaven”. In the first scene enactors were seated around a banquet table covered with good things to eat. They were obviously hungry, and trying to eat, but they couldn’t get the food to their mouths. There was rage and frustration, much banging on the table and shoving of neighbors, because their hands and arms had been tied to long wooden spoons. The enactors could get the food on the spoons, but when they tried to get the food to their mouths, it fell off on the table or onto the floor and was wasted. A scene of confusion and misery. Then the curtain was closed while the scene changed. It was easy to see why that had been a scene of hell.
When the curtain opened, the audience was confused. The scene was the same: same table, same guests, same food on the table, same long wooden spoons tied to arms and wrists, only this time there was peace and harmony and joy around the table, and all the guests were being fed. The difference now was that guests were scooping the food onto the spoons and feeding the person across from them on the other side of the table.
In Nicaragua we were taught that it is equally blessed to receive as to give, that when an impoverished person is your host, receiving what they give you is a way of bestowing honor and dignity, indeed, that to give is to receive, and to receive is to give. The parable made this point very powerfully. We ate then, a simple meal of rice and beans and tortillas and tamales roasted in corn husks. And then we went to church. And the people looked to me with reverence as I improvised as best I could a service of blessing for their hand-made bricks. A service of ratification for their hopes and for their labor. There was no wine in the village, but someone had some cough syrup, and that served as a symbol as the blood of El Salvador, and the beautiful, thin, children knelt before me and received, in holiness and purity, their little taste of eternal life. After the service they invited me to stay and be their priest. (But I came here instead.)
I was very sleek and trim in those days, had my marathon competition body on, but they told me, through the translator, that I was the the mas gordo, the most fat, person they had ever seen. They had brought a special heavy-duty hamaca from Managua for me to sleep in, and, at bedtime, most of the the village crowded in and around the mayor’s casa to watch me crawl in, and to applaud, and to laugh uproariously, when the hammock held me. I received their applause graciously, as I had been taught a guest must do. It’s more than 20 years since my last visit to Nicaragua, but, in some small ways, I have never left. I have forgotten much of the Spanish I learned, but I do remember compartir, “to share”, and that to receive is as important as to give.
Today we come to the end of another precious summer of sharing at the Church of the Ascension, which, to my way of thinking, could have as a subtitle, The Church of Sharing. Fourth of July weekend the Chappel and Starr families filled this sacred log cabin with memories of great-grandmothers, Marty and Percy, and we remembered all the saints gone on before who share this space with us whenever we gather here. Charlie and Annie and Edie Sheerin shared magnificent new hymnals and prayer books with us to honor all that Charlie Senior and Edith gave us during the time of their 35 year ministry. Our old rectory shared itself with Kevin Monroney and Tyler and Mary Montgomery, and a classy lassie named Mathilda bestowed it with her special blessing. Coralie and I shared a transcontinental journey by train and brought back news from Seattle and Banff. Every camp I know about shared time and food and comfort with guests from afar and family and friends bonds got re-connected. Parents and grandparents hosted multiple generations, cousins to the nth degree got dosed with family traditions and stories. Retired folk shared what they had with younger generations, but also cared for frail and failing spouses and parents and helped those who needed it find respite care. The grieving were comforted. The newly married got blessed. We as a community did our part to care for the lake and for the institutions in town that serve those in need. We supported the arts. We patronized the shops and consumed lots of good, local food. Our dogs and cats and goldfish had a chance to breathe good mountain air and to share the woods with their wild relatives.
Now, as we prepare to close the doors for the season, we gather to share one last meal, to receive the little morsel of bread, the little sip of wine, that Jesus and the hovering, loving spirits say is all we need to sustain our journey to eternal life. They’re here with us, holding us in their saintly embrace, as we kneel and say together those precious words, the ones I got to speak to those children in Jino Cuao, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven. The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.” And we will rise, to travel and to serve, and, God willing, to return. And always, always, to share. So here’s to you, Church of the Ascension, Church of Sharing, and, in Jesus’ Name, AMEN!