Promises Believed, Broken and … Restored?

As a seasoned preacher I know well the temptation to “bend” the Holy Word to suit our personal pet-themes. When preparing a homily I do my best to discipline my efforts in responsible ways. But sometimes present painful realities scream for attention from that Holy Word. And so it was yesterday when I preached in a United Church congregation on Genesis 15:1–18, Psalm 27 and Luke 13:31-35. If I took some liberties in the sermon text below,  I ask forgiveness. Small and imperfect, it was motivated by my deep desire to contribute to the healing of our beautiful nation, Turtle Island:

In each of today’s Scripture lessons we hear words of covenant, words of trusting God and words of God’s faithfulness against all odds. We hear words of bold witness and words of lament, both from Jesus’ lips. God’s promises are the foundation of faith, even when everything seems to be going in the opposite direction. Living in hope of God’s promise of peace and justice, of love and grace, offers hope for the future, even in painful and trying times.

The Quakers have a saying “a way will be made.” Out of apparent scarcity, abundance can emerge. Where there appears to be a dead end, a path appears. When we hit bottom, we discover God is with us and we can, with God’s companionship and inspiration, climb out of the mess in which we find ourselves. When we think we are unlovable or will never find a loving friendship, a chance encounter can change everything. We discover a highway in the desert, a path in the wilderness, a guiding star in the darkest night. A way will be made.

This was the experience of Abraham and Sarah. They had followed God, leaving their familiar home for the promise of a new land. They had dreamed of children to populate the land and be their companions in old age. But, still they had no children. They were desperate and wondered if God’s promises could be trusted. In the midst of his despair about the future, Abram (Abraham) had a vision in which God showed him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. It is an improbable promise to an old couple. A way will be made!

Psalm 27 promises the same thing – a sense of security and well-being – despite conflict and threat.“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Fear is epidemic in our time and some may be justified, but being paralyzed by fear won’t get us to the next step.

Abundant living and trust connect, scarcity thinking isolates and diminishes.A way is made when we choose to push toward a heavenly goal. We experience a deeper realism than the “earthly minded.” We see a great plant in a mustard seed and a multitude fed by five loaves and two fish. We see resurrection beyond tragedy and promise in unexpected people.The world’s realism dictates that we recognize a bottom line, but God’s realism imagines a great plant coming from the smallest seed and the gift of a small child multiplying to feed a crowd. Who knows how? Indeed, there are realities beyond what the eye can see that lure us toward the future.

A way is made indeed – for God is faithful – but we need to “will” that way and we need to choose to trust that a way will be made. Jerusalem didn’t will that way and didn’t trust. So Jesus mourns that Jerusalem has closed itself off to the future, turning away from the provocative alternative vision he presents to them.

There are people who have lived with unfulfilled promises for generations, and I’m not just referring to God’s chosen people from the Hebrew Scriptures. Most unfulfilled promises  are not caused by God’s unfaithfulness, but by human sin. I am referring here to the plight of our indigenous sisters and brothers in our great land called Canada, Turtle Island. Echoeing God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, God gave this vast land – from sea to sea to sea – first … not to us, descendants of immigrants, but to our aboriginal ancestors: “Look towards the heavens and count the stars,” God said to them, “So shall your descendants be.”

All across our land, our aboriginal sisters and brothers are hurting, weeping and grieving because of generations of systemic policies that have robbed them of family life, cultural customs and spiritual practices. And we still wonder why they “can’t get over it.” The Truth and Reconciliation Report minces no words – you can’t just “get over” a few centuries of internalized oppression and exploitation. Jesus is weeping with them, wondering if we will, like Jerusalem, close ourselves off from the liberating message of sharing the burden of pain, of pleading forgiveness and of owning up to our complicity in this intergenerational cycle of poverty and addiction, crime and abuse.

Opening ourselves to God’s transforming power in relationships with our aboriginal sisters and brothers comes with the need for painful confessions, for owning up to our collective guilt. Opening ourselves to God’s healing power comes with the need to eat stores of humble pie. When we muster the courage to do this, as a church community who claims to follow the ways of Jesus, and as a country, we will find God’s way to reconciliation, and recognize that God is indeed present and active in this enormous collective historical, cultural and spiritual challenge.

As Canadians we have experienced the work of the Truth and Reconciliation  Commission. We have heard the stories of residential school survivors, and the role of our churches, in the Canadian policy of assimilation. This policy has led to a loss of culture and the death of many in the Indigenous community for generations. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people through The Doctrine of Discovery. The church used this doctrine to give the government moral justification to claim lands as their own which were uninhabited by Christians. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people whose children attended residential schools. The vast majority of well over these 150,000 children suffered neglect, abuse and discrimination. We recognize that we have not learned nor taught this painful chapter in our country’s history in our schools and churches. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people through poor record keeping of the death of many children at residential schools, too often without a proper burial. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people in our history. We have denied their right to choose and express their spiritual identity by prohibiting them from practicing and teaching their faith and culture. These accusations come straight from the TRC Report.

Our aboriginal sisters and brothers have hit bottom, and they yearn to have faith, respect and dignity restored  – in themselves, in the Creator, in one another, in us. We need their healing as much for ourselves as for them. We need God’s healing TOGETHER.

Echoeing Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, we lament the despair, pain, and loss that these actions have resulted in, for the Canadian Indigenous community as well as on all of us. We claim to emulate God’s faithfulness in the face of all odds, as today’s Scriptures encourage and challenge us to. We can do no less than commit ourselves to a full restoration of personal and cultural relationships with our aboriginal sisters and brothers, to walk with them the painful and challenging road to personal and cultural wholeness, to allow their collective pain a place in our hearts, so as to carry one another through the bonds of our shared humanity.

There is much to reflect on in the TRC Report and many concrete suggestions for actions given. Read sections of the Report this Lent, make it part of your prayer for healing. The TRC Report reminds us that we are all Treaty People, we are all part of this covenant with one another. Will we honour the calls to action to advance the process toward Canadian reconciliation?

As people of faith, God calls us to wholeness and healing. In this Lenten season, may we – God’s people on Turtle Island – confess and repent, and turn away from the sin of cultural genocide once and for all.

God promised Abraham and Sarah offspring as numerous as the stars. Abraham and Sarah put their trust in that promise against all the evidence to the contrary. God gave to a great people this vast country called Turtle Island, a people of dignity and beauty. This people, our First Nations’ brothers and sisters, put their trust in our Treaties and we betrayed that trust.  They are waiting for the fulfillment of our promise to them by way of the Treaties agreed upon with our ancestors.

Jesus uses the image of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings to explain God’s protection and love. This strength is at the heart of his message to all who follow him: God’s compassionate love gathers everyone together. Jesus understands the challenges that are before him, but holds strong to God’s promise as he faces what lies ahead. He stays firm in his faith.

Jesus will fulfill his mission in Jerusalem. His example is a challenge to us. Like Abraham and Sarah, God calls us to a deeper and bigger purpose. With regard to our aboriginal brothers and sisters, Jesus challenges us to commit to ready our ears for listening, deep listening, to ready our minds for honouring – deep honouring of the painful stories of intergenerational cultural genocide, abuse and neglect, and to open our hearts to the long and slow process of confession, healing and reconciliation for the greater good of future generations of all Canadians, in order to restore to fullness the covenant God made with us all.

How will we respond? Will we respond in faith and trust, with courage and boldness, forging a way where there does not seem to be one? Or will Jesus lament over our willful turning away from him, him who lives in our hurting sisters and brothers? AMEN

 

Prayers of the people

One: O God, often we have trouble understanding your promises.
We do not always know how to be strong.
You promise to be our stronghold, our shelter, and our rock.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: God, you promised descendants to Abraham and Sarah,
that his family would inherit the land.
What promises and treaties in today’s world have been betrayed
and that need our prayers today?
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: Help us remember the covenant moments in our own lives –
graduations, marriages, baptisms, exchanging gifts.
May we draw on the grace of these moments,
especially when we forget your covenant with us.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: God, you call us to serve and love one another.
You call us in a particular way to walk humbly
with our aboriginal sisters and brothers who are in pain
over promises and treaties broken and betrayed:
generations suffering cultural, social, and spiritual neglect.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
Help us to be instruments of healing and reconciliation,
to confess the sins of the past and to open our hearts to one another.
Show us where our gifts can be used
and where our compassion is needed the most.
All: We lament the despair, pain and loss
that our past actions have resulted in,
for the Canadian Indigenous community
as well as the effect and impact
these same actions have had on us.
We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: May we trust like Abraham and Sarah,
serve as Christ served others,
holding on to and restoring God’s promises in good times and  in bad.
All: Covenant God, may we find ourselves trusting you
when the evidence tells us otherwise.
May we find ourselves following you
even as the world says not to.
May we find ourselves living with the impossible
when everything else says we can’t.
May we hear the promise in our souls,
and live it in our world. Amen.

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Praying for the World

It is not Paris we should pray for; it is the world.
It is a world in which Beirut, reeling from bombings
two days before Paris, is not covered in the press.
A world in which a bomb goes off at a funeral in Baghdad
and not one person’s status update says “Baghdad,”
because not one white person died in that fire.
Pray for the world that blames
a refugee crisis for a terrorist attack;
for a world that does not pause to differentiate
between the attacker and the person
running from the very same thing you are.
Pray for a world
where people walking across countries for months,
their only belongings upon their backs,
are told they have no place to go.
Say a prayer for Paris by all means,
but pray more,
for the world that does not have a prayer,
for those who no longer have a home to defend.
For a world that is falling apart in all corners,
and not simply in the towers and cafes we find so familiar.
(by Karunaezara on Instagram)

The above words, cross-posted on a Facebook Page, reveal a reality much uglier and disconcerting than the loss of hundreds of lives in the Paris attacks. I felt convicted by these words, because my heart recognized them as true. I love Paris, I have personal memories in Paris, I lived in France several decades ago. And so yes, yesterday’s attacks shook me to the core because of these personal connections.

But Beirut and Baghdad are unknown places to me. And because they are unknown places, the people are unknown and do not inhabit my heart. While the loss of lives there through terrorist attacks is equally tragic, that news registered only in my head and not my heart. The same is true for other parts of the world most of which I have never set foot in. I confess the sin of callousness and uncaring.

Yet, my love for Jesus challenges me to desire a greater capacity to hold the pain of the world in my very bones. If I claim to pattern my life on the one who bore our sins (1 Pt. 2:24), then I need to learn to break free from my little self-centered box of a world and embrace the wider human family. But it’s hard, it’s so very hard, to constantly be open, wide open, to pain, to screams of despair, to roaring tsunamis of destruction and death. Not only to remain open to embrace such agony, but to embrace without collapsing under its weight and death-dealing blows. The spirit is so willing, but the flesh is so incredibly weak. I fail miserably every day to kiss the leper, to love the outcast, to forgive the offender.

Yet we are called to be the change we want to see in the world. And God does not give up on us as easily as we may. God knows the potential for good with which we are created. The spark of God in our DNA draws us to compassion and courage, to selfless giving and caring, to great loving and deep forgiving. Those are the things that make our humanity shine with a light that no darkness can overcome. It’s been done some 2,000+ years ago by an obscure carpenter in Nazareth.

That obscure, crazy carpenter from Nazareth dared to refuse to project and pass on the violence and pain inflicted on him. For the first time, someone —none other than God’s own Son—said: the buck stops here. No return punch. No more tit for tat, no more sacrifice, no more scape-goating. “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice,” says God in Hebrews.

Far from rolling over and playing dead, Jesus’ self-sacrifice extended far beyond fight or flight, far beyond the suicide bomber theology of a holy war. In the utterly non-violent, no-return-punch-walk to his own death, in this non-violent response, Jesus released a power far greater than the kind we humans normally employ. That’s what gives Jesus the crown of glory.

It takes great power to say with your life, “I will carry your pain and insults.” And to say these words from an inner place of strength and goodness, not from a place of victimization and inadequacy. Try to do this in the aftermath of Paris, or the Middle East, or Afghanistan, or our own back alleys and homes where abuse and violence create a living hell.

To be sure, carrying pain and insults willingly has nothing to do with being a doormat and simply taking it! Carrying pain from a position of strength is only possible when we are secure in knowing who and whose we are – God’s beloved son/daughter, in whom God is well pleased.

Of course evil needs to be opposed – no question. But we need to be much more creative in our plan of attack. In Jesus God found the only way that effectively neutralizes the power of evil in the world by saying: “I’m willing to suffer. I will bear the problem myself.” That was a brand-new answer, a revolutionary answer. This type of answer no longer contributed to the problem.

SuicideBomberThat carpenter showed how to grow to our fullest, deepest and most beautiful human stature, another way to say that he opened the door to heaven for us all. If all who profess his name take this seriously and put his example into action, we’d have a massive upheaval against terrorism, beginning with redistribution of riches and restoring dignity and right relations among all peoples.

Jesus’ way of staring down evil without becoming evil himself still looks ludicrous in the eyes of the world. Yet the alternative is much worse. Staring down evil with love and justice has been done successfully; it can be done again.

Look not on our sins but on the faith of your people, O God. Take away everything that sucks courage dry, break down every wall in callous hearts, remove prejudice–resentments–false stereotypes from rash judgments. Teach us your strong and open and generous loving, for the sake of the planet’s well-being and the future of our children’s children.

Update two days later:
I continue to feel helpless, fighting off despair in my own heart, despair for a world on the brink of utter destruction. All the above words seem trite, irrelevant in the face of global destabilization. The only consolation I find is in praying; I am immensely grateful to my friend Amanda who posted this link on her Facebook Page: A Prayer for Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. O God, save us from ourselves.

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