One of the countries I visited in January with my life partner Maria is an often misunderstood place. Nicaragua is the largest Central American country on the isthmus. It sits right above Costa Rica and below Honduras. Nicaragua is beautiful–full of volcanoes, unique architecture, incredible beaches, and an eye-opening diversity of wildlife and plants.
It is also home to two incredible bodies of water: Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua—both of which are important landmarks and natural wonders.
Lake Nicaragua is the 9th largest lake in the Americas and is home to unexpected creatures, like bull sharks.
Apparently, these humongous sharks swam and jumped their way over the rapids of the San Juan River that connects to the Caribbean Sea and found Lake Nicaragua’s fresh water very inviting. I was pleased to hear our guide tell us, as we sat in our tiny little boat, that the bull sharks were towards the other side of the lake.
What’s really interesting about the other famous lake—Managua—is that mysterious human footprints were discovered there in 1874. They are called the ancient footprints of Acahualinca. Fifteen people made these prints, and they are over 2100 years old.
It is true that Nicaragua’s history, like most places, is complicated. The indigenous dwellers of that land, descendants of the Mayans, were overwhelmed by the diseases and weapons that the Spanish, Italians, Portuguese, French, and English brought during the conquests. Known for being farmers, the Nicaraguan’s way of life was completely disrupted by industrialization and over-development and the snatching up of their once-fertile farmland by foreign investors. Currently, Nicaragua is the poorest Central American country and 2nd only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere. There are many reasons for this—one being the conquest I just mentioned; another one being a terrible earthquake that wiped out more than 90% of Managua, the capital city, in the 1970’s; and another reason being that the United States has invaded Nicaragua on various occasions and even instituted a trade embargo against Nicaragua during the tenure of President Ronald Reagan. Some of you may remember the Iran-Contra affair and perhaps you watched the famous Ollie North trial on TV; or some of you who are younger read about these events. Unfortunately, for Nicaragua, because of periodic foreign invasions and then subsequent revolutions and political turmoil—it seems that Nicaraguans [or Nicas] just cannot catch a break.
But as we walked the city streets of Granada and Leon;
Ate the amazing food, like this Nicatamal;
Spotted fisher men and women catching their food for the day as they have done for centuries;
Something happened. Nicaragua was no longer just a place, or a news story, or a chapter in a history book, or a media clip. The people of Nicaragua are beautiful. They tell stories about their culture, land, and traditions with pride a nd joy. In spite of the many challenges they face, Nicas are overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable. Countless people helped us out along our way—when we were lost they put us on the right path or even made sure we got there; if we didn’t know how a certain bus route worked, they would explain and sit with us and even ensure that we didn’t pay too much money; they told us where to eat and what to eat; they told us about their families and the towns and cities where they grew up in; they liked to laugh, and sing old-school Country Western songs; they are a community. And we were invited to be part of that community.
Of course, none of that would have happened if we wouldn’t have gotten to know people face to face. If we wouldn’t have eaten the local food, wandered through towns and cities on foot, asked questions and expressed curiosity—we wouldn’t really have felt part of their community.
That’s the thing about being part of something—it takes vulnerability, commitment, and time. But I would argue that it’s worth it, for if you are a part of an authentic community that cares, people have a sense of mutual responsibility. What I do affects you and vice versa. People who embrace and live in authentic community understand that there is something more than just our individual wants and needs–something greater. In my life, I know when I have felt most alive. It was when I was part of a real, caring community. It was transformative and powerful.
Paul, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, understood this. Paul is the one who wrote this letter to the church in Corinth [Greece]. In spite of how it is often interpreted, this poetic portion of I Corinthians 13 is not about love. At least not the way we think. We often read this “love” passage at weddings; I Corinthians is associated with romance, affection, or even with the marriage act itself.
But this letter has nothing to do with romance.
You see, Paul actually wasn’t happy at all with this church in Corinth. People were too proud. They thought they had theology and God all figured out. They put down others who didn’t believe or think or act like them. They were full of themselves and therefore had no room left for love. Paul’s focus was indeed on community—not just in this letter, but throughout his life and writings. This is the same guy who described the faith community [or church] as being like the human body. Each part, big or small, was of equal importance. And each body part needed the other in order to function and thrive. Everyone in the community, taught Paul, was equal. He reiterated this in his letter to the Galatians, when he said: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
But being “one” had nothing to do with sameness. The people in the various house churches of the 1st and 2nd century Mediterranean world were incredibly diverse. They were Jews and non-Jews; Greeks and Romans and Israelites and Egyptians and Assyrians and Samaritans; they were people who believed in many gods and others who believed in one; they were women and men who ate different foods, wore different clothes, spoke different languages, said different prayers, and had different ideas. So being community for these people was not about being homogenous. Hmmmm….
Radical community was what Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived in his time on earth. This Jesus met people face to face and accepted them for who they were. He then encouraged his disciples to do the same, to bring this message of God’s kingdom community to their neighbors near and far. It became the recognizable mark of the Jesus Way. And society noticed, because this kind of accepting community was not the norm. Befriend people who are poor, widowed, childless, unclean, or of low status? Honor and respect all people, including those whom society kicks around? Reach across boundaries of social level and religion? This kind of new community broke all the rules and angered religious leaders of the temple and the military and political leaders of the Roman Empire. Such a community would upset the order and status they wanted to protect.
But Paul was transformed by this idea, for he himself used to be one of those oppressors, remember. He was changed by a forgiveness he had never experienced before. And the followers of Jesus welcomed him into their community, in spite of all the evil he had done. So Paul was convinced of the power of such a community to make a difference–not just in the lives of individuals–but in the world. I Corinthians is not about romantic love, but about a radical, communal love that enables individuals to imagine life in a community where unity and difference can co-exist. Paul wasn’t naïve. This wasn’t flowery poetry without reality. Love wasn’t and isn’t abstract in this case. For Paul, love was the binding factor in a diverse world. If love was at the center of their life and identity, then they actually had a chance to be an authentic community in spite of their differences.
I wonder. What if churches and other religious institutions today based their existence, not on what they believed [dogma, doctrine] or what traditions they upheld, or their sameness [ethnicity, culture, or language], but instead on these principles of community? Imagine, that in order to be a church:
We cannot make sounds [talk or yell or blog or shout] unless we do it in love;
We cannot claim to know the future;
We cannot be faithful and loyal and then go home;
We cannot rest on our intelligence;
We cannot just be charitable and give a lot of money.
We have to be patient;
We cannot envy other people;
We have to be thankful for who we are;
We cannot puff out our chest and say, “Look at me! I’m awesome!”
We cannot look down on others, thinking that our country, culture, language, or religion are better than others;
We cannot insist that we are right and should get our way;
We cannot resent people and hold grudges;
We never celebrate when someone gets hurt—even an enemy;
We don’t push away the truth, even when it ruins our reputation;
We do more than tolerate, but embrace everyone’s differences;
We believe in love and grace when no one else does;
We hope for justice and good when the world is hopeless and bad;
We love consistently through problems, pains, and bad luck;
We daily decide to love with our actions, even if we’re having a bad day;
To be an authentic community, we recognize that at the end of the day, we are left only with our humanity [our true selves]; and somehow, faith, hope, and love are still around, too.
But faith is elusive and so full of baggage that we’re not sure what we really believe. Everybody seems to have a different “absolute” truth, so what’s the deal? Is there really a “right” belief or a “stronger” faith? Faith is elusive.
Hope is, too, because we have often hoped for things and then been slapped in the face; we have hoped for something good and gotten something bad; we’ve even had false hope in something that wasn’t worth it and we got burned and embarrassed; and we have also seen that hope isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if you’re oppressed, without food or shelter, marginalized, or forgotten. Hope doesn’t save anyone from those things.
So we are left only with love. But love—is greater than romance and emotion. Love is an excellent WAY. It’s a style of life; it’s a choice to exist to love; love is walking, working, studying, relating, moving, sharing the planet. Love is. Love is a WAY.
But you can’t love people if you’re afraid of them—if you don’t interact with them face to face. Remember, it is written that there is no fear in love, because love drives out fear…
So the “other,” the stranger, is someone we must know and love. Only then will people who are different than us stop seeming like a threat . For in authentic community, we embrace fully all people of all colors of skin; people who speak any language; people with different cultural heritage; all children, youth, and men and women of all sexual orientations; people without money and people left out. In community we choose to love instead of fear, because we know that fearing people leads to hating them and that leads to a broken community.
Friends, we have the choice in life to choose another way.
The community of faith or what we call the church–is supposed to be on the cutting edge of love.
There is a reason for that. God knows us intimately. God knows us face to face. God loves us for who we are. We have communion [relationship] with God. And so, if we are known by God—then we are made to know each other. If we are loved by God as we are—then we are made to love others as they are.
So I encourage you to know other people—really know them face to face. Love them as they are and embrace their differences.
And then be known yourself.
And find love.
And be loved.
And then find community. Amen.