Sermon: Fig Cakes, Tamales, and a Heap of Raisins

tamalesBy Joyce Hollyday
Circle of Mercy: October 1, 2017, World Communion Sunday
1 Samuel 25

We held a sheep-shearing day every spring at Swan Mountain Farm, where I used to live. Mark, the chief shearer, always started with the rams because, he explained, they “come with handles.” Mark grabbed Charlie by the horns and wrestled him over on his side. Charlie, like all the sheep, began that morning as a massive ball of fluff, as wide as he was tall, his wool discolored a dingy brown by dirt. By the time the clipping was done, he was a skinny thing, and the thin layer of wool left on him was shockingly white. As soon as he could get his feet under him, Charlie escaped into the pasture. Mark then repeated the process with Chip. And when he ran into the pasture, the two rams, not recognizing each other with their new haircuts, aimed their horns, charged at each other, and butted heads repeatedly.

This may have something to do with why Jesus often used sheep as an example of clueless stupidity. Suspicion of anything different or unfamiliar seems to be the default response in sheep. And in humans too, I’m afraid. In today’s scripture, the response of Nabal to David’s request for food is rather typical: “Who is David? Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

David’s reaction to the insult is also, unfortunately, typical: “Every man strap on his sword!” This call to arms has echoed in some form since the beginning of human history: “Every man grab his spear…pick up his rifle…aim his grenade launcher…strap on his suicide bomb.” Or, most recently, the infamous “Watch out, Rocket Man, we’re going to totally destroy North Korea.”

The scripture tells us that every one of the men strapped on his weapon, and that “about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.” Clearly, these were men with a lot of baggage.

So, our story is hurtling pell-mell toward a bloodbath. Abigail, described as the “clever and beautiful” wife of the “surly and mean” Nabal, takes matters into her own hands. This was no small thing in an era when women were so systematically relegated to the margins—considered unreliable witnesses, denied political participation and banned from religious leadership, owned as property first by their fathers and then by their husbands, their main role being to provide male heirs.

Isn’t it just like a woman to show up with a casserole at the first hint of crisis? Or, in this case, with a bunch of grain and a heap of raisins, a couple skins of wine, a couple hundred home-baked fig cakes and a pile of mutton, all loaded on donkeys. It was a feast far more extravagant than the bread and water with a side of meat that Nabal had denied David’s men.

Clever indeed—Abigail was a very wise woman. Clandestinely, she brought the peace offering, convincing David to abandon his war plans and save himself guilt and grief. She welcomed one who was deemed an enemy, courageously and sacrificially. She met violence and vengeance with generosity and graciousness.

David was smart enough to see her good sense and bless her for it. “Unless you had hurried and come to meet me,” he told her, “truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one male. Go up to your house in peace.”

And so Abigail did. That night her husband Nabal died, apparently of a heart attack brought on by drunkenness and her report. So David wooed Abigail. The wise woman and the future king got married and lived happily ever after—well, not exactly, but that’s another story.

* * *

Fast-forward a few centuries. In October 1983 two dozen peace activists gathered in Philadelphia as war raged in Nicaragua. U.S.-backed forces known as contras were carrying out a campaign of terror against the civilian population. The leader of a church delegation that had traveled to that embattled country three months before reported that while they were there the mortar attacks, kidnappings, and massacres had temporarily ceased.

What to do? The answer was obvious. If the presence of U.S. citizens was enough to offer protection to Nicaraguans, we needed to figure out how to make that presence permanent. Thus was born Witness for Peace, launched amid great doubt that we could ever find enough people to risk their lives in a war zone at their own expense. Two months later I headed to Nicaragua with the first team. Hearing endless stories of anguish and loss, documenting contra atrocities, and standing in prayer with Nicaraguans at sites of attacks and massacres was life-changing for me.

The war in Nicaragua eventually ended. Others erupted: from Panama to Palestine, in Romania and Rwanda, in Congo, Colombia, Kosovo, and Cambodia. Dozens of wars all over the globe. On New Year’s Eve of 1999, I traveled with my friends Susanne and Greg Walker-Wilson and their then 2-year-old son Caleb to the Nevada Test Site to pray for a “new millennium of peace” as the 21st century dawned.

Greg and I joined hundreds of other protesters, flowing through the desert under a canopy of stars in a quiet stream of candlelight, crossing at midnight onto the site where our nation explodes nuclear bombs. I was carrying a bright red candle in a jar, bearing an image of Jesus with a burning heart and the inscription Sagrado Corazón de Jesús: “Sacred Heart of Jesus.” It was the only candle I could find to buy that day, when much of the world feared that all computers would crash and electricity would disappear around the world. Placed into large holding pens after our arrest, we sang for hours. And I prayed fervently through that night for the child that I had just learned, with delight, would be welcomed into the Walker-Wilson family in a few months.

Ascher Walker-Wilson was born on August 26th, 2000, and baptized exactly 16 years ago on World Communion Sunday in 2001. The gift I gave him that day was the “Sacred Heart” candle, a sign of my yearning that he would grow up in a safe and peaceful world. “We pray and sing and hold candles in dark places,” I wrote to him in a note that I hoped someday he would appreciate. “It seems like so little. But it’s the best we know to do.” As I was driving home from Ascher’s baptism, an NPR report announced that U.S. forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, had just launched an invasion of Afghanistan with a massive bombing strike. That war, the longest in U.S. history, continues to this day.

* * *

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, an email came to me anonymously. The author spoke of taking a walk in the woods with his young daughter. She was pretending that monsters were hiding in the trees, ready to eat them. Her father asked, “And what would you do if you saw one?” “Feed them” was her reply. “Feed them?” “Yes, if we feed them they won’t want to eat us.”

The author then suggested that we take the billions of dollars that had just been approved for increased U.S. security and instead “spend it in every neighborhood in the world. Put the world to work growing food, healing people, restoring land and water…” At the same time, a pastor in Minneapolis encouraged us to “unleash our weapons of mass construction”—to go about digging wells, laying roads, building hospitals and schools. “Let us scour the earth clean of terrorism,” he wrote, “through the merciless application of knowledge, compassion, hope, and tolerance.”

“If we feed them, they won’t want to eat us.” Can you think of a better path to national security?

I remembered all this when I heard that the wall the current administration wants to build on our southern border is estimated to cost $21 billion. I’ve been to the Mexican side of that border. I walked down the dusty, rutted roads of Nogales, among dark, dilapidated shacks without running water, where children with the distended bellies of malnutrition begged for food. I sat in a tiny home constructed entirely of worn-out car tires and heard stories about life for the workers in the maquiladoras, the U.S. production and assembly plants located on their side of the border. One million Mexicans are employed in more than 3,000 factories, earning on average 70 pesos per day—that’s about eight dollars and fifty cents.

They endure these oppressive and exploitive jobs because they feel that they have no choice. Many migrated to the border after NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, went into force in 1994, opening the way for U.S. corn and other heavily subsidized staples to flood into Mexico, undercutting and destroying their livelihoods as small farmers. U.S.-based transnational corporations began taking over land that had supported families for generations, forcing more than two million Mexicans to leave their farms. One-fourth of the Mexican people now lack access to basic food, and increased poverty has led to the breakdown of communities and the rise of organized crime, illegal drug activity, gangs, and domestic violence.

So, when we ask why so many people are risking their lives, paying dangerous smugglers exorbitant fees, crossing deadly desert land to get here—we have to look at ourselves, at own country and its policies. Imagine, for a moment, how much better off and more secure we all would be if we took the billions of dollars it would take to build a wall and instead paid a living wage to all those workers in the maquiladoras, allowing them to live with dignity in their own country. Or, better yet, how about returning the land to the farmers we’ve displaced? And while we’re at it, maybe we should consider giving back Texas, which we stole from Mexico in 1845.

Instead, we have an immigration crisis on our hands.

But I want to share some good news. It’s a tale of modern-day Abigails. I’m blessed to be part of Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith), spending three hours every Thursday with a group of women who are teaching me a lot more than how to improve my Spanish. When terrifying executive orders targeting undocumented persons came out of the White House soon after the election, many immigrants understandably chose to lay low. But one of the women announced, “I think the best way to keep from being sent back to Mexico is to introduce ourselves to local law enforcement—let them see our children and get to know our families.”

And so we hosted “Lunch with the Law.” The mujeres prepared a feast to rival Abigail’s: tamales and empanadas, rice and beans, tortillas and salad, flan and sweet dulce de leche caramel cake. The fear was evident on their faces in the presence of our 6-foot-8 county sheriff, nine of his deputies, and the local chief of police. But a few gathered their courage and spoke, voicing their terror about the possibility of being torn from their children and sent back to violence and poverty.

We can’t know what the future will bring, what new pressures may be in store; but that day the law officials listened and responded in ways that made the women feel heard and safe. The sheriff pointed out that federal money isn’t exactly pouring into our little corner of western North Carolina, and the U.S. government has little leverage to tell him what to do. The chief of police swept his eyes around the room and declared wryly, “I can guarantee to you ladies that I’ve put more members of my wife’s family in jail than Hispanics.”

* * *

I’ve been part of a lot of failures in the past three and a half decades, since my first foray into peacemaking with Witness for Peace. Despite all our efforts, the world is a colossal mess. But this past July, Ascher Walker-Wilson headed to Nicaragua with a Witness for Peace Teen Delegation. Who could have seen that coming in Philadelphia 34 years ago?

Thousands of people have traveled to Nicaragua and other Latin American countries with Witness for Peace. And back in the 1980s, the military Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted, “We could have invaded Nicaragua if we could have gotten the damn Christians out of the way.” Never prouder to be a “damn Christian”—then or now.

We never know how the small seeds we plant may grow, or what effect our little acts of faithfulness will have. Abigail stopped a massacre with fig cakes and a heap of raisins. She reminds us on this World Communion Sunday that breaking bread together has more power than spewing threats and brandishing weapons. In the spirit of Abigail, the bold mujeres of my county invite us to face down our fears, reach out to our enemies, and open ourselves to being vessels of peaceful transformation. As we gather around and feast once more at this table, we are reminded that we have far more power than we could ever imagine.



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