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

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

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.


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.



from: Miracles in the Mundane

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.
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.

Healing the Demons

We’ve seen Jesus call the disciples and heal the unclean spirit in the synagogue. In this part of the story Jesus goes to the home of Simon whose mother-in-law is very ill.

Here we see Jesus take her by the hand and lift her up. She is healed and able to get up and serve. Then the neighbourhood gets wind of what Jesus is up to and all sorts of people start showing up.

There are a whole bunch of things in this passage to unpack a bit. Last week Jesus dealt with an unclean spirit. This week he’s dealing with demons. There is a distinction here between unclean spirit and a demon or evil spirit.

You might think of an unclean spirit as human spirit that is damaged in some way. To a certain extent we all have unclean spirits in that we do things that harm ourselves, or others or the creation. We all make mistakes and most of us have things in our lives that hold us back, that we regret or wish were different. This is the unclean spirit.

In the ancient world demons were believed to be responsible for anything inexplicable. If you’re on the ground and there’s no wind but the tree above you is rustling that is the work of a demon. Demons were believed to cause illness and suffering. Some demons were benign, others were harmful. We are told that Jesus would not allow the demon to speak. This is because it was believed that their power lay in being able to name someone. If the demon couldn’t speak, it couldn’t have power over a person.

There is also an important distinction between curing and healing. Curing relates to removing the physical symptoms of disease. Healing has more to do with finding meaning, having emotional and spiritual wholeness in the midst of disease and being restored to the community. Many of us have heard stories about inexplicable curing of disease—perhaps someone is close to death and they recover or they have a cancer that suddenly disappears. There are curings that cannot be explained.

Healing can happen when someone chooses to live well with a chronic illness or even to die well. Healing can happen even in the midst of death. Sometimes families that are estranged are brought together in caring for a loved one as they die. Healing impacts not only individuals but families and communities.

In this passage, Jesus didn’t do anything except take the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law. His presence was enough to heal. We might hear the story and think that this is what makes Jesus so amazing and out of our league. These types of stories are what in our culture give Jesus a God-like quality but, as I said last week, in the ancient world people expected miracles and they expected that magic type healings were normal. Mark’s gospel tries to portray Jesus as a very ordinary human and Jesus offers healing in a way that all of able to provide. Ched Myers writes that “[Jesus] provides social meaning for the life problems resulting from the sickness.”[1] With this definition healing lies in helping people to reconnect with themselves and their community regardless of the symptoms of the illness.

In this sense, we don’t need special powers for healing. All of us have the ability to reach out and touch another person. When I was working with people with disabilities, we were encouraged to touch our clients because many of them would only receive touch as part of personal care. Touch of for the sake of touch was healing for many. It helped for many of them to understand that even with whatever disability they were still loved and still of value. The people with disabilities didn’t need healing but the way in which many were accepted and treated needed healing. The healing is in how people are treated.

All of us have the ability to be a presence to someone who is struggling. Illness can be isolating. As people’s physical, emotional and spiritual conditions deteriorate isolation often occurs. Sometimes it is because the individual doesn’t have the energy or ability to go out. Sometimes other people withdraw because they are uncomfortable and don’t know how to talk about illness and death or because the individual’s condition makes them uncomfortable. Sometimes there is nothing to do but sit and touch someone. That presence and touch can be healing.

Illness also prevents people either temporarily or permanently from working. In the ancient world, and in many parts of our own world, an illness means poverty and maybe death for not just the individual but for entire families. In Jesus’ time someone who was unable to work because of illness would have almost immediately become immersed in poverty. There was no medicare to cover the cost of treatments. There was no insurance to help ease people through difficult times. The connection between poverty and illness was and is an intimate one. We can see in our context that many people choose between paying rent, buying groceries, buying medications.

Previously, we heard the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. Then we had Jesus healing unclean spirits that cling to power and privilege. Then we have Jesus healing a woman so she can return to her work and be restored to her role in the community. If we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus then this is the work that is ours too. Later in Mark we find the story of the rich man wanting to know how to receive eternal life. In this story Jesus closes the conversation by telling him that “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” Already in Mark we see this happening and it is directly related to the healing work that Jesus is doing. The rich and powerful will be able to recognize that their values may not be in line with God’s expectations. Those who live in poverty and on the fringes will be restored to places where they are a meaningful part of the community and valued for their contributions.

We look around the world and see violence and destruction around the world and in our own communities. We wonder how these things can come to be. We wonder what causes someone to hate enough to violently behead or burn someone alive. In many ways these things are inexplicable. I don’t how someone comes to a point in their life where that kind of behavior is acceptable. It’s inexplicable to me just like the demons in the ancient world were inexplicable. There is no way of understanding why one person gets sick and someone else doesn’t.

For me, violence and hatred and fear are inexplicable. They are demons. I’m not suggesting that there is evil lurking behind every tree waiting to jump out and capture us. I’m not even thinking of actual entities but the demons exist in our minds, in our attitudes and behavior. Sometimes these demons are grounded in real life situations and experiences that give rise to the feelings. Sometimes they are taught or learned but either way they are powerful and have the ability to make us very ill in body, mind and soul.

In the scripture, Jesus did not allow the demons to speak so that they would not be able to control him. He could speak and was able to control the demons. In our world that is so filled with violence, fear and hate if we can find ways of preventing these demons from speaking they will not be able to control us. If we find our own voices of love, compassion and hope which offer something different from the voice of the demons we may be able to create space for healing to happen.

When we hear and experience hatred we need to respond with love. When we experience fear we need to offer comfort and hope. We witness violence we need to live peace. These practices silence the demons that are destroying the world and create healing.

The passage has one more practice to offer us that strengthens us for the journey of discipleship. That is the relationship between being and doing. Sometimes as church people we want only to worship God. We want the beautiful music, the scripture, the prayer that will comfort and strengthen us. Sometimes we get busy doing things and trying to save the world and forget to allow the spirit to nourish us. In this passage, we see Jesus working hard and then we see him take a break. This cycle occurs many times throughout the gospels. We need both. Our faith is personal in that is strengthens and nurtures us but our work calls us out into the world to heal lives.

[1].  Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:Orbis Books, 1988), 145.

A Kaleidoscope of Theologies

In this passage (Ephesians 3:1-12), Paul is writing to the Ephesians –  a group mostly made up of non-Jews. I love the book of Ephesians because it has so much to say about how we live together in a faith community in the midst of difference and conflict.  The Jewish Christians really struggled with how people who were not culturally, ethnically or religiously Jewish could still be God’s people. Paul is telling the outsiders that they are welcome and that they can be part of Christ’s body even though they think, look and act differently from the Jewish Christians. What connects and holds the faith community together is a faith in Jesus.

As a minister, I have had many opportunities to reflect on and learn about my faith. Sometimes where my belief has taken me is a natural fit. Sometimes it has been more of a struggle to change and let go of beliefs that no longer fit. In the passage, Paul has had an experience of faith which he has shared with the community. His belief that Jesus had come to all people, not just the Jews was radical. It was a departure from the belief of the early church. As a minister, I often find myself in a place where my beliefs no longer fit with what I was taught as a child or what seem to be common assumptions about Christian faith.

As a minister, I am called to share my faith with you from my own learning and reflection. This task is a gift but sometimes intimidating. There is a fine line between sharing and learning together and an arrogance that dismisses other belief. As I read this passage I hear Paul saying he knows something that no one else does. He has a new message that no one else has heard. He is clearly grounding this message within the context of Jesus message but reshaping it so it has meaning for the congregation with which he is corresponding.

Paul recognizes his own insignificance but that the Spirit is working through him. He also recognizes that there are many different strands of wisdom within the church tradition. What he is offering as a message is only one strand. This tension between many different beliefs has been part of the church since its earliest time and continues to be a part of our own context.

Throughout the history of Christianity there have been many different strands of faith. It seems a bit like a like a kaleidoscope with many shapes and colours. Everyone who looks at a kaleidoscope sees different things, is reminded of different things. What we see may depend on the what’s happening in our lives or world at any given moment. Our scripture and the theology we draw from it functions in a similar manner. This is why we have four gospels in our Bible—all of which are different.  They tell the same stories in different ways. They tell different stories and have different focuses and emphasis. There has never been a single right way of understanding the gospel message or of practicing faith. However, attempts have been made to force “right” belief at the expense of other strands of faith. That’s how our cannon of scripture—the books we now simply call the Bible—came to be. Marcion was raised as a Christian but disliked anything Jewish or material. Somewhere around 144 C.E. he organized a church following his own beliefs and using only Luke and Paul’s writings.

Other congregations used a variety of writings. We know of at least 21 known gospels that were in use in the early church. Because of Marcion’s beliefs and that of some other fringe groups like the gnostics, the mainstream church, decided that they needed to clarify what it was they believed and what was appropriate reading material for learning and instruction. Out that we end up with the canon of scripture (containing only four gospels) and the Apostle’s creed, the first draft of which appeared somewhere around 150 C.E.

Throughout the history of the church there have been different interpretations of scripture and theology. When one group goes too far one way or another, another part of the church tries to draw them back. There is a history of feeling so strongly about particular beliefs that groups leave denominations and start their own church. That’s how we have ended up with so many different denominations.

Within modern Christianity there is sometimes a tendency towards an assumption of common beliefs. As United Church people we are sometimes accused of believing in everything or in nothing. I think that the reason for this accusation is that as a denomination we have tended to not stay within the prescribed notions of single belief. It is hard sometimes for people who have been taught that there is a right way of believing to recognize that there are multiple ways of interpreting scripture, of practicing faith and of living faithfully.

I want to share with you some of my beliefs that I wrote in the form of a personal creed. Some of the things in it you may agree with. Some of it you may disagree with. Some of it may raise questions for you. I offer this recognizing that what binds us together in the body of Christ is our sense that God and Jesus are central to our lives.

I believe in a loving, just, compassionate God
who cries and laughs with us,
This God creates
and is beyond what we can know or comprehend
is within us and
we are within the Creator
All creation is God’s body,
When we harm creation, we harm ourselves and our creator.
The Wise Ones call us to dance and celebrate all life with this Creator.

In Jesus, this Creator was and is made known.
He was fully human and fully known by God as all of us are.
He cared about each person individually
and knew that all must be free for one to be free.
As Political Lord, he challenged structural violence
and empowered people for transformation.
Jesus is known as
prophet, guide, protestor, activist, healer, teacher, witness.
Jesus died because there is sin in the world
which separates us from each other and from God.
Jesus challenges that separateness.
There is witness to his life, his death and his resurrection.
It is because of this witness that he is known to us today.
Jesus calls us to continue the witness that points to a
God of justice, love and compassion.

The Holy Spirit gives courage and passion to continue the witness.
She is known in dancing life, in laughter and tears,
in grace and compassion.
She is the breath of God that offers creative movement in the world.

God calls all creation to live in justice and peace together.
Not in some distant time and place but here and now.
We live as though the Kingdom of God is already among us.
The Kingdom of God is made known:
in healthy, respectful relationships, in risk and in trust.
God is a God of relationship so in relationship there is hope for all creation.

What’s most important for me in my faith is that God is embodied in each of us. Sometimes we are very good at living faithfully. Sometimes we are more challenged in how we live. For me, belief is important in that it shapes how I live and how I see the world. I believe in a God of hope, a God of transformation therefore my life and speech and actions must reflect hope and transformation. If I believe in a God of hope, I cannot live in fear. If I believe in a God of love then I cannot spread hate. The belief points me in the direction of life that I want to live.

Over the Christmas break, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about hope and fear in the context of our own faith community. If we believe in a God of hope then many things are possible. If we believe in a God of fear, we are doomed. The Christmas angels remind us “be not afraid.” This is some of the best advice that our scripture has to offer.

We cannot live in fear of beliefs—Christian or otherwise—that are different from our own. God is bigger than our belief. Ephesians reminds us that we need variety in our belief. The variety challenges us and helps us grow in our faith. You won’t always agree with everything I say here and that’s OK but I hope that when you hear things that differ from your own beliefs it will deepen your own faith. Sometimes, it is tempting to only want to hear what affirms our own belief. It’s comfortable and in many ways easier but if our faith is never challenged by others then it doesn’t deepen and grow.  As we become grounded in our own faith—not necessarily more rigid or certain—it often becomes easier to tolerate difference.

This isn’t to say that we want to believe everything or nothing. What is essential is for us to be able to discern which aspects of our faith are most central and which we cannot compromise on. For me, these are my belief in a God of justice and compassion, that God works through all of us to transform the world and that we experience God through our relationships. These core beliefs are what give me hope and help to maintain my faith in a world that sometimes feels like it is falling apart.

I often wear a cross. The cross connects us to Jesus’ death and resurrection. For many, a cross is a symbol reminding us that Jesus died for our sins and of the need to believe in Jesus so that we will abide with Christ after death. That’s a particular variety of belief.

For me, the cross is a reminder of the people who stood and watched Jesus die and could do nothing. It reminds me that there are many people in our world who continue to live with injustice and death. Sometimes it feels like a can do nothing. This particular cross was a confirmation gift and when I put it on it connects me to the minister who gave it to me and her commitment to justice. It reminds me that there are many people around the world who continue Jesus’ work today. It reminds me that death does not have the last word in our world. I’m not terribly concerned with what happens after we die because my faith is grounded in God’s activity in this world. This is also a variety of belief.

Neither of these beliefs is wrong but they shape how we see the world and the emphasis we place on our interactions with others. Both are grounded in Jesus and scripture. In our faith, we need to make room for each other even when we see the world differently. We need to listen to each other and be open to be being shaped and touched by belief that is different from our own. That’s part of the richness of wisdom that comes from being part of a faith community.

We need more than just the wisdom that has been handed to us from previous generations or that comes from those of us trained as ministers and theologians. We need the wisdom of the collective faith community. You are part of the rich variety of God which is made known in all of us together.

People often make New Year’s resolutions. I encourage you to spend time reflecting on your faith and how it shapes your world view. I encourage you to resolve to join a Bible study or other reflection group. Your faith is what grounds you in God’s spirit and that faith always needs to be deepening and growing. Open yourself to be challenged and learning as well as sharing your own wisdom with faith community.

For Unto Us a Child is Born…3000 years ago

This piece of music from Handel’s Messiah will be familiar to many of us. Many of us know the scripture reading Isaiah 9:2-7 through this piece of music. It is a beautiful and powerful piece of music. And it misleads us in understanding this particular scripture. We hear the scripture or the music and we think we know what it has to say to us:

“The world was a horrible place, full of destruction and Jesus came and released the world from sin. Now everything is wonderful because Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace.”

And that’s not actually what the passage is about. The early Christian church used this passage to talk about Jesus but the passage isn’t about Jesus.

The passage begins by describing the setting and helping us to get a feel for the mindset of the people. This part of the book of Isaiah was written when Assyria was powerful. In Bold and Brazen, Barbara J. Essex writes “Isaiah shows that social injustice is evidence that Israel’s relationship to God is shaky. Since the people fail to live up to their communal values, they will be subject to superior military and imperialist powers. Isaiah challenges the people to put their trust in God and to live public and private lives that reflect that trust.”[1]

So the context of the original writing is that the Hebrew state of Judah was a smaller and weaker country with the Assyrian empire nearby always threatening. As the Assyrian empire dissipated the Babylonian empire was coming into power. The people hearing this writing for the first time were hearing it as they watched their enemies become stronger and as they lived with the threat of invasion. And in the midst of that uncertainty, Isaiah offered some comfort.

“You are living with violence on the horizon. You are living with the threat of being overrun. It will not always be like this. Into the midst of your fear and uncertainty, a bright spot will come. There will be someone who will come and be a great leader and when this happens, you will be safe from your enemies and you will be filled with joy.”

This was not a hope for centuries in the future but at hope for the immediate future grounded in real life political events.

Following the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites pushed out the people of the land where they were settling and set about creating a state. This was originally a theistic state with God as the head. There were various leaders, followed by a system of judges who managed the various needs of the community and were military leaders, in conjunction with the priests and religious structures. But the Israelites looked at their neighbours and recognized that their neighbours, who were becoming powerful, all had kings. The country eventually split into two states: Israel and Judah. Israel was overtaken by Assyria and Judah was left to fend for itself against much more powerful nations.

In ancient Israel and Judah, the king was to protect the people and there was a belief that the people’s fate is directly tied to the king’s fate. The king was to be just in judgement, but the law did not come from the king. The law came from God as set out in what is now our Hebrew scriptures.

Within Biblical tradition there is a common expression of the king as God’s son. The intent with these images is not to imply that the king is divine but to remind the people that the king acts as the judge of God’s law and that the king is under God’s protection. In this model, the king is accountable to God and not to the people. As part of the coronation covenant made between the king and God, if the king is not ruling justly, God may choose to end the dynasty. According to 2 Samuel, God promises king David an eternal covenant. Any future, legitimate, king of Israel must be descended from David.

While it was common to anoint the king in many ancient traditions, Israel and Judah are the only places where the title of “anointed one” or “messiah” is given to the king. This becomes one of our names for Jesus but it was originally intended for a very human king.

Our scripture passage is reminding the people that even though the future looks bleak there will be a king who will renew the nation. Isaiah’s contention is that the king, and therefore the people, have not been following God’s law but there will be a king who will return to God’s justice and law and when that happens, there will be joy and peace in the land.

This particular passage was probably used part of a coronation ceremony. There are several different ideas about which king is represented here but it was intended for very real life context and not a future dream. The dream was of a political king who would come and save the people in their own time and place.

This passage contains the words which we associate with Handel’s Messiah, “wonderful counsellor, Mighty God, everlasting father, Prince of peace.” According to the Jewish Study Bible[2], names would often contain descriptions of God. The descriptions were not of the person being named but of the God followed by the family.

The Jewish study Bible translates the verse this way: “The mighty God is planning grace; The eternal Father, a peaceable ruler.”  It changes the verse from being about the king to focusing on God. The passage is not predicting Jesus, nor does it say anything about his divinity. What it does tell us is that any future legitimate king will live up to the descriptions of God. This future king will be just and bring peace to the land.

The people hearing these words originally hoped and prayed that this king would come in their time. They prayed that hope would be restored to the land. They prayed that there would be justice and safety. They prayed that violence would end and prosperity would come to the people and the land.

It is an ancient prayer that is repeated 3000 years later. We continue to pray for the fulfilment of these words. As Christians, we recognize that Jesus embodied the traits that the people longed for in a king. And we continue to pray for peace and justice in the world.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus reminded the people that the kingdom of God is among you and that the kingdom of God is near and that the kingdom of God is yet to come. The words were true when this passage was originally written and it is still true today. On Reign of Christ Sunday we continue to recognize the ways in which Jesus brings the kingdom of God among us. We continue to pray that this scripture will be fulfilled in our time.

[1].  Barbara J.Essex, Bold and Brazen:Exploring Biblical Prophets (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2010), 25.

[2]. Jewish Study Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) Isaiah 9:5.