Rev. Danielle K Bartz December 11, 2022
Isaiah 35:1-10 “Life in the Desert”
I have told you many stories about my time in Nicaragua, which I traveled to in seminary to learn about Liberation Theology from the people who created it. Even though it was a relatively short experience, it had a life-long impact on me. And I want to tell you another story. We spent two days and one night in the campo, the countryside of Nicaragua. We were heading to a country community where we were broken up into pairs or groups of threes to stay with families who were all a part of a Christian worshipping community. But, on the way there, we stopped at a farm. Our host, an organization that brings in seminary students from around the world to offer them immersion in Liberation Theology, wanted to use our journey out to the campo to help this particular group of students from the United States see more closely the impact of this country’s shameful role in Nicaragua, and the extraordinary faith and resilience of the Nicaraguan people.
The United States history and repression of the Nicaraguan people is too complicated to go into in depth now, so instead I want to focus just on the story of this farm. The US had tremendous economic interest in Nicaragua, in particular it wanted to import cheap beef from it. In the early 1970s, just before the revolution, Nicaragua was the United States top supplier of beef. But the land there is not suited to beef ranching, so the US-backed Nicaraguan government enacted harsh policies of intense deforestation. So much so, that there were dust storms in a country that was, created by God to be, a tropical or sub-tropical environment. The United States also shipped 40% of its pesticides, including those banned for use here, to Nicaragua, resulting in Lake Managua, a huge lake in the country, to be considered dead because of the toxic run-off.
By the time of the revolution in the late 70’s, the vast majority of the land was denuded of trees, the topsoil was dead, and the natural water sources were toxic. Because there were no trees, rain patterns changed, and birds and insects were largely gone. After the Sandinista Revolution, much of the land was turned back over to the Nicaraguan people, including the farm we went to visit one January day in 2008. There were no pictures of that particular farm as it was right after the revolution, but there were pictures of the region. We were right on the edge of a rainforest, but it looked like the wide-open range land of South Dakota or Montana in that picture. It looked desolate and it looked dead. The farm we visited still had on it the matriarch of the family, who originally arrived on that desolate and dead land. Through the aid of her off-spring and our translator, she told us about arriving to that bare region, tasked with restoring the land and creating a farm that could provide for generations of her family. The words she used to describe that time in her life were filled, inexplicably, with hope and faith. She described seeing visions of what the land did once look like and could again. She talked about gathering with her husband and children every morning and evening, kneeling on the ground, and praying to God, placing her hands on the ground to offer her blessing. She talked about the slow and hard work of healing the land. When asked if she ever lost hope the land could recover, she said something I will never forget: she said, “The land remembers its moment of creation by God, and with our labor it was able to find its way back.”
When we visited that farm in 2008, it was lush once again. It was the rainy season, so the insects were constant. There were more flowering fruit trees than I have ever seen in one space. The narrow walking paths around the farm moved with the natural contours of the land and shifted if a new tree took root. The birdsong was almost over-whelming and made it difficult to hear one another talk. The land, healed of all the harm that was done to it, was able to provide for that multi-generational family, so much so they were able to create a livestock cooperative with their neighbors, supported by the organization Heifer International, to have a few pigs on the land to provide an additional form of income. The pigs, naturally suited to that environment, were allowed to wander the farm freely, and live off the sustenance the land provided with little to no intervention by the family. It was an extraordinary place, one that was so teeming with life it was hard to believe just a short time prior the land was dead, and the water was poison.
I thought of that farm as I read the vision cast by Isaiah that we read in today’s scripture. Isaiah wrote these words during the Babylonian Exile, when the people were separated from the land they knew. He described a desert land blooming with flowers and flowing with streams. He described the land rejoicing in its own life. And he described the path for the people to find their way to this land – called the Holy Way. It was free of harm and for the people of God to walk along. It was a vision cast by one of God’s prophets that was beyond the imaginations of most people. But it was a vision filled with such hope for the possibilities of new life found in the places that feel like death. It was the hope the people held onto during the exile, and the hope they clung to as they returned to the land they had been forced away from that needed to be healed of what was done to it. It was the hope that echoed down through generations of faithful to that Nicaraguan woman who looked out at the barren and dead land and saw in it the possibility of life. And her hope, built on the foundation of her faith in God’s creation, and laboriously brought to life through hard work, was a hope that was not in vain despite all the over-whelming evidence to the contrary.
Our lives are filled with desolate places. Outside of ourselves we can see climate destruction, reduction or removal of long-held rights, a denigration of the societal norms that hold our fragile democracy together. Within ourselves we find deserts of anxiety, despair, grief, or malaise. These deserts in our world and in our lives can seem like places beyond the joys of life. They can seem like dead places, where nothing can thrive and hope is lost forever. But, as the prophet in Nicaragua said, the land remembers, and I believe our souls remember, the joy of our creation as God’s beloved. The places that feel like death are not dead, life is there, waiting to be found and nurtured. And, holding onto the hope that is created for us by the ancient prophets and the prophets of today, we can rest our hands on those desolate places, pray to God, bless them, and work life into them again.
Advent is a good time to get in touch with those desert places in our loves and in our world, to imagine what God intends, and to pray boldly for it. Advent reminds us once again that God is doing something new in this world, that God is brining life to places that feel like death, and the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is a promise that will be fulfilled. And Advent is a time to remember that we are co-Creators with God to complete this promise. That we cannot simply offer to God our prayers by throwing up our hands and saying it is all in God’s hands now, but we offer to God our prayers and our hands, to do God’s work. The earth and our souls remember their creation by God. A creation that God blessed and called good. The earth remembers and our souls remember. And we are called on to re-member, to re-form what was been broken or hurt. The new will not be the same as the old, but like a mosaic created from fragments, it will be beautiful and rich with life. Amen.
God of life, your creation of us was an act of love and devotion, and when you saw what you had done, you blessed us as good. For this act of loving creation, we give you thanks. And it is in this gratitude that we come to you now in prayer.
God, there are so many places within ourselves and in our world that feel beyond life. They feel like deserts that have lost the ability to bloom. And yet we know that deep within those desert places there is the possibility of new life once again. So we pray that you will create for us the vision we need to provide us with the hope to bless those places and to bring forth from them the life you have promised.
Even as we pray for this inspiration, we also hold onto those cares of our hearts and spirits, cares that are too deep for words. We turn them over to you now, offering them to you in silence, knowing that you hear and hold us gently…
Good and Great God, you are the source of all life that is rich and vibrant. And you also know what it means to walk through desolate places through the presence of Christ Jesus amongst us. And so we offer these prayers in his name and in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…