Can Sarai find hope?

Last week, I wrote about the genealogy of Noah’s descendants. Following that is the story of the tower of Babel which does make it into the lectionary. Genesis 11:9-32 is another genealogy which takes us from Noah’s son Shem up to Abram and begins the story of a specific family of faith which we will follow for many generations.

This genealogy is also quoted in Luke 3:34-38 as a way of linking Jesus to Abram. That link was not the original intent of this text, but it suits the author of Luke’s purposes in giving Jesus credibility within the Abrahamic tradition.

At the end of fifteen generations, we come to Abram. Abram marries Sarai. She is the only woman named in this genealogy. The first thing (after her parentage) that we are told about Sarai is that she is barren. It contrasts what has been and sets up what is to come. The creation has been created with all its abundance of creatures. Even the flood couldn’t wipe out that abundance. Now one of the main characters in the story is unable to bear children.

green leafed plant on sand

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I imagine how devastating her barrenness would be for Sarai. In a world where women were valued for their fertility, I wonder how she was treated by Abram and her in-laws. Did she endure repeated rapes as Abram tried to get her pregnant? Was she the one forced to work the hardest and eat only the scraps left from everyone else’s meal? Was she snubbed and shamed in her family because she had no children? I suspect that Sarai felt like nothing in her life could change and she would be trapped in a life of violence. I wonder how Sarai found hope in the midst of her circumstances.

Many people find themselves trapped in lives that they did not choose or feel like they have no choice. It seems to me that it would be difficult to maintain hope and have a sense of God’s abundance when there are so many barriers. I’m thinking about people who access the food and clothing shelf at the church where I minister. Many find themselves in situations they didn’t choose. There are mental health, addiction challenges and physical barriers to employment compounded by criminal records, lack of education and racism. I wonder how many of these folks would find it hard to maintain hope and a sense of God’s abundance.

There is a disconnect in the biblical story between the abundance of creation and Sarai’s barrenness. Sarai seems like a small island of barrenness in the vast abundance of God’s creation. But as we go on with the story over the next few weeks, we will find that this is not a permanent state and that Sarai is able to participate in the abundance of God’s creation.

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Christian Hope

Habakkuk is a short book—only three chapters.
This reflection is based on a bit from each chapter: Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4 and 3: 17-19. This prophet is angry. He sees all the bad things around him and cries out, why God? Why don’t you do something? Anger at injustice is a good thing because it tells us that something isn’t right. But when the anger becomes consuming and overpowering it becomes destructive for ourselves and others. In the midst of what we see around us it is easy to lose hope and find ourselves drawn into the despair we see around us.

In the closing verses of the book, the prophet places his trust in God. Saying,

Even though the fig tree doesn’t blossom,
Even though there’s no fruit
Even though the olive crop failed and there’s no food;
Even though there’s no livestock
Even though (and you can fill in your own blanks here…)

I will rejoice in God; God is my strength.

Habakkuk places his future hope and his trust in God. That’s challenging when it seems like the world is falling apart and you can’t see God. Jesus comes from a long line of prophets who poured out their anger at injustice and challenged their communities to live more faithfully. As Christians and followers of Jesus we join in this group of prophets who cry out for justice and mercy in the world. Every time we help someone in our community, every time we support the work of Mission and Service, every time we work to change structures that oppress, we are living our Christian faith. When we do these things, we join our voices with the voices of other prophets past and present. We create a bit more hope in the world.

When we gather around the communion table, as we will in a few minutes, we remember that the world is hurting. We remember that people and communities are broken which means that the body of Christ is broken because we are all members of Christ’s body. We look around the world and see violence and injustice. When I pour the cup, it is this blood that I see. As long as there are people who live with violence, poverty and exclusion, Christ continues to be crucified. This is what I see when I break bread and pour wine at this table.

adult aged baby care

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It might sound a bit depressing, but this table also gives hope. At this table we remember bodies broken and blood poured out. We also celebrate the bread of life and the cup of blessing. We celebrate the prophets—past and present—who use their anger at injustice to lift up people affected by injustice. We recommit ourselves to work towards a world where God’s hope for the world is realized. Our Christian faith gives us hope that the injustices we see around us do not have the last word. Just as Jesus death was not the end of the story, the violence and injustice we see around us is not the end of the story.

We wait for the birth of Jesus. We dream in hope of a world reborn. We work with faith in a Christ who has walked this path before us.

God of Hope

The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found in Daniel goes like this: The Jewish people have been exiled to Babylon. Some have become leaders within the Babylonian government. King Nebuchadnezzar creates a giant gold statue and requires everyone in the country to worship this statue. Informers who go to the king and tell that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are refusing to participate in this worship. Nebuchadnezzar summons them and gives them another chance to bow down. They still refuse and proclaim that they are willing to die rather than worship this false God.

My beautiful pictureNebuchadnezzar flies into a rage and orders them thrown into a furnace. The people throwing them in are killed by the heat but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are seen walking around unharmed along with another being—sometimes described as an angel.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are released from the furnace and the king declares that anyone who speaks against their God will be killed.

This is a dramatic and gruesome story but it has something to say to us about how we respond when we are asked to do something that goes against our values or beliefs.

I was thinking about a story from my own life this week as I was reflecting on this scripture. In 1988 when the United Church was talking about ordaining and commissioning people regardless of sexual orientation I held a minority opinion within my small church. I was thirteen at the time and knew that the majority of people in the congregation were against this proposal. I couldn’t understand how a God of love would condemn people for loving but I was afraid of what would happen if I spoke up so I chose to remain silent.

From where I stand now, I recognize that I was very vulnerable because of some of the bullying that was happening at school and because I was a child. I needed to church to be a safe place. Speaking up would have jeopardised that. For a long time, I felt guilt and shame that I had not spoken up and expressed my belief that God loves us unconditionally and God would not condemn us for loving another person. It took me a long time to forgive myself for my silence. Now I find myself in a position where I am less vulnerable. I am in a position to speak and offer leadership. I have people in my life who are a support system when the going gets rough.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were in a position where they had to choose to be silent and go with the flow around them or to speak up. They chose to stand firm. They stood together. When we are working against powerful systems, having people to stand with is important. If we stand alone, we are much more vulnerable. Even so, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were risking their lives in order to stand up for their God. In my situation, it probably wouldn’t have been life threatening but it would have been uncomfortable.

This Sunday, we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope. How do we find hope when the challenges of life and the world feel overwhelming and too big to handle on our own? In the story, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego placed their hope in God. They trusted that even if they died standing up for God, their God would still be with them. The firmly believed that Nebuchadnezzar could not prevail in the long term. It is hard for us to trust in God’s long-term vision. We have a tendency to see the immediate future—only moments ahead—which can seem scary.

God calls us to see further—to trust further as we seek hope. In Advent, we wait and we prepare for Christ among us. Jesus was continually taking risks, speaking what he believed to be God’s word. As followers of Jesus, we are called to similar ministries of risking in order to bring hope. We are called to be courageous in standing with God and with the most vulnerable rather than with the powerful and the structures that destroy. The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego has a surprising ending. The story of Jesus has a surprising ending. Both stories should end in death and yet they both end in life and offer hope. Our own stories might feel like they are leading us to difficult places but might have surprising endings—if we have the courage to risk.

An Easter Reflection

Mary Magdalene tells her story:

Woman, Old, Senior, Desperation, Grief, Female, PersonWe spent the Sabbath, weeping and mourning and praying. There was nothing left for us to do. We wondered why God had abandoned Jesus and why God had abandoned us. We were all together comforting each other. After the Sabbath, I went with Joanna, Mary who is the mother of James and some other women to Jesus’ tomb. We hadn’t had time before the Sabbath to prepare him for burial. It was just one more indignity that he had to endure. Now we just needed to perform the proper rituals for him.

When we got to the tomb…the stone was gone. Suddenly, there were two men. They were dazzling and light glowed from them. We were terrified. There were too many strange things happening. How could it be that the stone was gone? Who were these men and why were they surrounded by bright light? They spoke to us. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That doesn’t even make sense. Jesus is dead. We saw him die. This is the place where you look for dead people and Jesus is dead. “He is not here, but has risen.” Wait….what…risen? risen? Wait… risen…raised to life? How is that possible?

We ran away in fear—not understanding what had happened. Distressed at another insult. Distressed at something else we couldn’t explain. We found the others. We tried to explain but our words just tumbled out in a jumble making no sense. It made no sense because our grief was too raw and too huge to understand, to share or explain. This new event just added to our confusion, our grief and outrage.


Rock, Outlook, Landscape, Holiday, Nature, Rocky, ViewThe Easter story is a story many of us know well. it is one that we read or hear year after year. I want to offer some cultural background about death which might put a different spin on our reflections about Easter. This information is taken from the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Richard L. Rohrbaugh and Bruce J. Malina . In Jesus’ culture, the original culture of Easter, there was a different understanding of death. We think that there is a moment where life stops…breath stops, the heart stops beating, the brain stops transmitting. For us, this is the moment of death…This is the moment we grieve as life changes to something else.

But in Jesus time, after death, the body would be placed on a shelf in a tomb. Family and friends would mourn for a whole year while the body decomposed. As the body decomposed, any evil deeds would fall away. It was believed that the bones contained the personality and were necessary for a resurrection. At the end of the year, the bones were collected and placed in a box to wait for resurrection.

In the case of capital punishment or crucifixion the body was held by the Sanhedrin (which functioned like a court) for the full year. When the flesh was gone from the body the sentence was complete and the bones prepared for resurrection.

For the women arriving at the tomb on Easter morning, they arrive to participate in a ritual that is part of the mourning process. But there is nothing there to mourn. Without the bones there is no hope of resurrection. We think of Easter as a happy and joyful occasion but the first witnesses would have been more distressed by an empty tomb. Their hope of resurrection is now gone.

Malina and Rohrbaugh make two points that I think challenge our theological perspective of the resurrection. They suggest that Jesus’ resurrection (the disappearance of the body), could go directly to God because there were no evil deeds that needed to rot away. This leads to another important point. Jesus death was wrong and in taking Jesus directly after death, God overturns the judgement of the earthly condemnation.

I like this twist because rather than suggest that God sent Jesus to die, it affirms that the death of Jesus, like so many other deaths, is unjust and wrong. It speaks to us in our moments of despair and confusion and grief and reminds us that God’s love and compassion overcomes the evil and violence in our world.

Maybe after they thought about it for a bit. Maybe after they had cried until they could cry no more, Mary and the other women at the tomb might hear the words of the two men at the tomb differently. With the bones gone, the only way to find hope was to believe that God had overturned the conviction and proclaimed Jesus innocent. The only way to find hope was to believe that Jesus was already resurrected.

As we look around the world and see violence and hatred and injustice the Easter story reminds us that this violence is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new story. It is an opportunity for new ways of seeing the world. It is a chance for hope to blossom and create new life in places of violence and pain.

What thing in your life or in the world is painful, confusing, grief-filled? What can the Easter story teach you about finding new life within this situation?

How do You Fish for People?

The story of Jesus calling the first disciples (Luke 5:1-11) as told by Simon….

I’m a fisherman by trade. There’s been a lot of odd things happening lately. My mother-in-law got sick recently. We thought she was going to die but there was a healer wandering the countryside. He came in and healed her up real good. I’m not sure exactly what or how but it was pretty miraculous.

And then there’s the fish. We haven’t been catching much lately. I know they’re out there somewhere but they just weren’t finding their way into our nets. Now this healer I was telling you about? He was still in the neighbourhood last week. There seems to always be a crowd following him around. So the crowd followed him right up to the shore. It was too crowded so he asked to use my boat. We weren’t doing much on account of not catching any fish. So he got in the boat and we rowed him out a ways.

After he taught the people for a bit, he said to my mates and I, row out a bit more. So we did. Then he said to put the nets out. I thought to myself, what a waste of time that will be. But again, nothing to lose so out go the nets. I thought they’d sit empty for the next few hours—just like they did for the last few weeks. But suddenly there were fish everywhere. There were more than our nets could handle. The boat was swamped and I thought we might sink, there were so many fish.

I called to the next boat to come and help and the fish still overwhelmed both boats. I knew there were strange things going on and it seemed to have something to do with the healer they call Jesus. Why would this Jesus person help me out by healing my mother-in-law and then finding this huge catch of fish? Who am I to deserve this? And I told him so…Why waste these gifts on me?

His response was unexpected. He told me not to be afraid and that we would now catch people instead of fish. When we came to shore, we left the fish and the boats and walked away. The evidence of what this man could do was too compelling. I felt strangely drawn to him and to see where the adventure leads.

……

hope-sun

from: Miracles in the Mundane milagomama.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/create-hope/

I grew up being part of a United Church. I’ve always believed—at least intellectually that there is something beyond us—something beyond what I can see and touch and feel. That sense of being grounded in something bigger than myself has always been grounded in Christianity. As a child, I learned the stories of Christianity but the stories were just stories. They didn’t actually speak to me or tell me anything about the world in which I lived except that there was a God out there somewhere who was in control of everything.  But if God is in control, why do bad things happen? Why is there hatred and violence?

 

What has continued to shape my sense of call to Christianity and to ministry is the Hebrew prophets and the way in which Jesus grounded himself in these prophets. They lived in the midst of famine, war and exile. They lived amid great disparity in wealth. And yet they spoke of hope.

I imagine the fishermen waiting for days with no fish in their nets. I imagine Simon’s desperation when he has no money for medicine or healers for his mother-in-law. And then Jesus comes to town. He heals people. He offers a word of hope that things will not always be the way they are.

Just like the prophets…just like Jesus…we live in a time of great upheaval. We need hope which calls us to look beyond everyday life and see the bigger picture. I believe that part of what drew people to Jesus was that he gave them hope…hope that the world could be different…hope that the world could be turned upside down…hope that there could be an abundance where there was none previously. Jesus invites the first disciples to leave everything and come with him on a mission of hope. We see Jesus and his new disciples head off on their mission. They feed people. They challenge injustice. They heal people. They create a community in which hope for the future and hope for a world made new is what holds the community together. At the centre of this hope is a God who is bigger than anything they can imagine. Jesus renews the community’s hope in that God.

We are also called to be bearers of hope in a time of upheaval. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus point the way for us. Their message and the model teaches us to welcoming strangers, including people who are on the outside of the structure and to look after the most vulnerable. These tasks create a culture of hope in a world where there is much despair.

Jesus tells the disciples that they will catch people instead of fish. But what will they use to catch people? You can’t use nets like you would for fish. It is the hope that will catch them. How can you create hope in the life of one person you know? How can you help to create hope for a group of people who are marginalized or threatened?

The Story of Job, the Story of Grief

The book of Job is 42 chapters long. The song above does a pretty good job of summing up the book. Job was very good and very wealthy. Apparently, God and the other heavenly beings notice Job. So they have a bit of a contest to see if Job will curse God. The only rule is that Job can’t be killed.

So first, all of Job’s property is lost – the livestock and servants killed, his children dead. Job prays and is pretty philosophical about these events: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Next Job becomes very ill. His wife says to him: “Curse God, and die.” Job continues to pray and speak for God. Job’s friends hear about what’s happening to him and come to sit with him. Job laments. This means that he pours out his thoughts and his prayers. All of the anger, the rage, the wishing it were different. He pours it all out to God. He wonders why these things have happened to him. Why has God given him darkness? In the midst of his turmoil and grief God speaks to him. God reminds him that “human beings are born to trouble, just as sparks fly upward.” Pain and suffering are a part of the human condition. It doesn’t mean that God has gone away, only that there is sometimes trouble in life. Job and God have this conversation for several chapters.

His friends get in on the conversation saying that his children or himself must have sinned in order to cause these terrible things to happen. Job or his family brought this tragedy upon themselves. Job responds by defending God. He maintains his innocence saying: “I am blameless; I do not know myself.”

Job’s friends and his wife spend the book, trying to convince Job that he is responsible for these terrible things and that God has abandoned him to his fate. Job refuses to be moved. He spends most of the book defending God and maintaining that he didn’t do anything to cause these tragedies and still pouring out the anger, the pain and frustration of deep grief.

It isn’t uncommon for us in times of grief, in moments when we walk with death to ask these questions. Where is God? Why is God causing these terrible things to happen? If I did such and such would God heal and restore? Could I have prevented a death, a terrible illness, a tragedy? I’ve asked myself a lot of these questions in the last few weeks. If God is all powerful, God could prevent tragedy, death, illness. Since God doesn’t prevent these things, what good is God? Why do we bother to have faith at all in the face of death and tragedy?

The easy way to respond to God in the midst of tragedy is to walk away. To curse God, to believe that since God didn’t prevent the tragedy God must not be watching, not care, be punishing or maybe not even exist. This is what Job’s friends tried to convince him of.

Job saw another path. He maintained that even though these terrible things happened, God was not the cause. God became the place where Job poured out everything that he was thinking and feeling, while maintaining a relationship with God. He asked God the hard questions: Why? Where are you? and then he listened for the answers. God responded by showing Job the wonder of creation. Job came through this tragedy. He had more children and built up his wealth again. His life did not end with tragedy. He trusted God enough to hold all the strong emotion of grief. He trusted in the goodness of God and recognized tragedy for what it is—something that happens in the world.

When we experience death, illness and tragedy in our own lives it can be difficult not to stay present with God. It can be difficult to ask God the hard questions. It can be hard to pour out all the anger and pain so it no longer consumes us—in body, in mind and in spirit. Job was able to do this and found fullness of life beyond his tragedy. God’s love continues to surround us and hold us even in the face of profound pain. Don’t give up in God in tragedy and death. This is when God’s love for us is strongest and when we need it most.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

The book of Isaiah has three parts, written over a period of time. There appears to have been a prophet named Isaiah who was active in Judah prior to the Babylonian exile. The first 39 chapters in the book of Isaiah are associated with him.

The second part of the book (chapters 40-55) was written during the Babylonian exile by someone following Isaiah’s thought. Chapters 56-66 were written after the exile had ended. As you might imagine there are differences between focus and themes because of the context in which they are written. First Isaiah seems doom all around. This author recognizes that bad thing are about to happen and, following common belief at the time, that are happening as punishment for sin. The way to avoid the violence and destruction that is coming is to return to God and God’s ways. That’s the focus of First Isaiah.

Second Isaiah was written later. War was all around. Israel had fallen and only Judah was left. The Babylonian exile began. All of the wealthy and elite, the people with skills were taken forcibly into Babylon where they were captives for 60 years. During this time there are three groups of people: the ones forcibly removed, the ones who fled and became refugees, and the ones who stayed behind in Judah- in and around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron. Second Isaiah is speaking to people living in the midst of communities that are torn apart, family members who are missing, people on the move—sometimes by force, sometimes out of desperation. We might hear Isaiah speaking to a nation in turmoil but sometimes the turmoil in our own lives can seem overwhelming.

Here, the words of Isaiah speak to the people in the midst of chaos:

Comfort, O Comfort my people
You have been led away from God into a foreign land
Into a place that is new and strange
Into a place where it is hard to worship God.
but it will not always be so.
It may seem that God is punishing you but your fortunes will change.

I am a voice crying in the wilderness

in the places no wants to go
in the places seemingly forsaken by God
in the brokenness and hurt
in the wilderness of your fear and anger
I am the voice that cries out for God.

Make space.
Stop.
Remove the blocks to God’s presence.
Think of a road…through the hills…up and down twist and turn… never seeing far ahead.
Make the road straight and level for God
Cut through the hills, raise the valleys, straighten the turns
When the road is straight, God is visible.

You cannot build a road alone! You can try but you won’t get far. Road building requires a whole crew!

When that road is built, everyone can see the way to God more clearly. The path will be easier and smoother when the crew builds the road.

Don’t sit idly by and wait for God to arrive and rescue you. Get ready!

Cry out! Cry out! Spread the word:
Even though human life is short in the universe
Even though grass withers.
Even though flowers shrivel.
Even though humans are so much like the grass and flowers
The spirit of God’s breath blows through them and they are gone.
Even when the grass, and flowers and humans are gone….God is still here.

In this midst of chaos, uncertainty, terror
Do not fear. Do not be afraid!

These words from Isaiah are reflected in our Gospels. When Jesus is an adult we hear John the Baptist – a voice crying in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

In the Christmas story we hear the angels, “Be not afraid. God is coming here.” We hear it in the dreams, “Be not afraid. Live fully. God is among you!” Always these words are spoken. They are spoken to people in living in the midst of turmoil, chaos and violence. These words are spoken to people with messy and complicated lives. They are spoken as words of hope. They are spoken to strengthen not just individuals but entire families and communities.

When the world becomes overwhelming, repeat the words of the angels again and again: Be not afraid. When the world becomes overwhelming, seek a community to help smooth the way for God in your life—in our lives. When the world becomes overwhelming don’t wait for God to rescue but actively prepare. God is already here. God is still coming among us. Be not afraid. Live in hope.