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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Let Me See Again

Preached on October 25, 2015 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church on Mark 10:46–52. Keep in mind that these homilies are longer than usual, as they are preached in a non-Eucharistic service:

Well, who doesn’t know or like today’s Gospel story about Bartimaeus, son of old Timaeus.  Bartimaeus has a place in society. His role is that of the blind beggar. As a beggar his job is to remind passers by that they have an obligation to give alms. What Bartimaeus doesn’t have though, is the right to be too obtrusive. Bart may beg, but he may not badger the teacher. After all, we will tolerate the poor as long as they don’t become too demanding.

Bartimaeus oversteps this social rule with his loud appeals. Heart-wrenching and profound: “Son of David have mercy on me!” We are told that these words stop Jesus. He stands still and calls the man to himself. In response Bart does two things which are totally uncharacteristic for a blind beggar. He throws off his cloak and he springs up. Beggars, especially blind ones, do not throw off their cloaks and spring up. Not if they know their place and their craft, or graft. Beggars cower and cringe. The fact that Mark records this unusual behaviour suggests that the transformation of Bartimaeus has already begun.

I wonder sometimes what cloaks and cows us… What is keeping us from approaching Jesus? Our propriety, our lack of trust or our politeness? Do we come to church Sunday after Sunday, cloaked and cowering, watching the liturgical parade go by, sitting through worship untouched, never once letting the prayers and the hymns, the readings and reflections, the love of Jesus, touch our hurt and sorrow, our losses and our wounds? Perhaps we cower and remain silent because we fear others would tell us to be quiet and not make a fuss.

Thank God for this boisterous, blind, beggar, Bartimaeus! He doesn’t think twice about throwing propriety to the wind. He not only stops Jesus in his journey, he also elicits the strangest question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Hello?! Blind beggar! Isn’t it obvious what he wants?

Well perhaps not. Remember the Gospel from last week. In last week’s Gospel text, which precedes today’s, the disciples came off looking rather smug. They thought they had this Jesus all figured out. But not so! While Jesus talks to them about bearing crosses, they argue about who will be the greatest in the kingdom! If anyone is blind and deaf, they are. In both situations, Jesus asks the exact same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” What do James and John answer? “Grant to us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Do you hear the arrogance in those words? Do you “hear” the blindness in those words??? So here’s Bart today, and Jesus is not taking any chances; he doesn’t assume nothin’! After the arrogant answer of the disciples, it’s smart thinking to check what it is exactly that Bart wants.

But Bart, uncloaked and springing, unlike the disciples, our Bart wants the real change. He wants more than alms. He wants more than recognition, vain glory or prestige. He wants life!

Did you notice the interesting detail in his request? “My teacher, let me see AGAIN.” Blind Bart it seems had not always been unsighted and benighted. He had seen; he once knew colour, depth and shape. He once knew beauty and love and joy. He wanted it again. So do we, don’t we? And we too, no matter how awful life can be, have once known beauty and love and joy. And illness, physical—emotional—spiritual, can rob of us of all that.

And so Mark includes the sick a lot, and Jesus reaches out to the sick a lot. Because illness marginalizes us still today. When we suffer pain, physical or emotional, it keeps us from being able to participate fully in the life of the community. We can’t climb the steps as well as we used to, can’t drive after dark, can’t get out where we might infect others or be infected.When depression darkens our spirit, we don’t have the energy to invest in relationships or to see anything beautiful in life.

A few chapters earlier, Jesus healed the bleeding woman who touched the hem of his garment. Neither this poor woman nor our beggar Bart had friends to advocate for them. Both were pushed to the edges of society. Both take matters in their own hands. And both were commended by Jesus with the exact same words, “Your faith has made you well.”

The reaction of the crowd to Bart’s cries for help is interesting. First the crowd “sternly ordered” Bartimaeus to be quiet. Are they worried Jesus will be disturbed? Or are they using that as an excuse to quiet him because they are disturbed? Maybe they are disturbed by the reminder that there is pain in the world, they are disturbed by how close that pain has come to them—close enough to reach out and touch them, and they would just as soon not hear about it. They’d rather hear holy words from Jesus than the petitions of a sick man.

Let’s be honest; it’s darn uncomfortable when someone openly shares their need for help. It can be just as uncomfortable to walk past a beggar without reacting. I feel I did just about that a few days ago … and I feel ashamed about that, since I desire to be the face of Jesus in the world. A man walked into the community centre where I work, disheveled, asking for money and a place to stay. Instead of saying to him, take heart, sit down and have coffee, I immediately was on guard, not letting him touch my heart.  I just “tolerated” him while he made phone calls. I confess here this morning that I did not hear this man’s cries, and that I failed him and I failed Jesus.

Thank God Bartimaeus has better luck. He doesn’t keep his pain bottled up inside. He shouts, he cries out to Jesus. Far from avoiding emotional, hurting people, far from my own guarded heart only a few days ago, Jesus responded, called him over and faced the desperate hopes of a man in need.

I see in this Jesus story a human being in pain, who thankfully isn’t afraid to talk about it, and a community that initially is reluctant to hear his pain but eventually is willing to listen and to help. I pray in contrition that I may learn to do this next time.

Here’s a story about someone who was luckier than the man who I encountered a few days ago. Little or nothing in Annie’s life promised a rosy future. She was unschooled, hot tempered, nearly blind from untreated trachoma by age 7. Her mother died when Annie was 8. She and her little brother Jimmie were left with an abusive father and a dilapidated home. Two years later the father abandoned his children. Annie and her brother were sent to the orphanage for the poor.

Her little brother died a short time later. Annie was devastated; her life was lost before she had any, or so it seemed. Blind, poor, no one to help her see. But Annie cried out, just like Bartimaeus, for someone to take note of her. Lo and behold, a state official heard Annie’s plea and began securing some support for the rebellious and contrary teenager. After two unsuccessful eye operations, Annie was allowed to attend a school for the blind.

Her life changed dramatically. Annie quickly learnt to read and write. She also learned to use the manual alphabet in order to communicate with a friend who was deaf as well as blind. That particular skill opened the door to her future and a life of remarkable achievements. Anne eventually had several successful eye operations, which improved her sight significantly. She graduated as valedictorian of her class. A short time later, Anne accepted an offer to tutor a girl of 7, a girl who was spoiled, rebellious, stubborn, blind, deaf, and mute. That girl was Helen Keller, who credited Anne for letting her “see again.” Someone heard Annie’s cry for help, and Anne in turn reached into Helen Keller’s blindness in order to help her see again. And the rest is history, as we say.

“My teacher, let me see again,” Bartimaeus cried out. Whose cry for help do we need to heed? What if we learnt to throw off our cloaks of fear and embarrassment, and dared to talk about our pain? What if we learnt to make space for those who have trouble being heard, for those whose hardships have caused numbness and blindness of heart?

Today’s witness by Jesus summons us to this task. If we become like the disciples, telling folks to “shut up” we have no right to claim the name Christian. But if we become like the crowd, telling the hurting ones among us to “take heart” we may learn today’s lesson. Once we learn to listen and hear each other into loving speech, we will have begun to show one another the mercy and hope of Christ. Then we will exchange the arrogance and blindness of the disciples for the vision of God’s reign in Jesus where all blind beggars and bleeding women, all sinners and tax collectors, deaf and mute people have a place at God’s banquet of heaven. Our faith still has the power to heal us in this way.

Prairie Encounters

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