Genesis 17: 1-8, 15-16
Here’s the thing about this scripture and others like it that speak of the covenant between God, the patriarchs of Israel and the promise of a land for the Hebrew people that was already inhabited. I can’t read these scriptures without thinking about what’s going on in that part of the world today. For a number of years Israel had been building illegal settlements (according to International law) on Palestinian land, steadily reducing the size of Palestinian territory while, abusing the human rights of Palestinians and refusing to engage in talks toward Palestinian statehood and a lasting peace. Scriptures like these are used as justification for Israel’s expansionist policies—Israel’s right to the land promised them by God.
But Abram and Sarai, as we meet them are stateless nomads. They are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the powerful without a kingdom to call their own. Today in that area of the world it is the plight of the Palestinians that more closely resembles the plight of Abram and Sarai and the yearning for the promise of a land to call their own.
This mix of theology and politics illustrates the danger of reading and applying scripture removed from it’s context. It also illustrates the danger of not applying a power analysis to scripture, of asking who are the powerful and who are the powerless and how does that translate to today? Israel and Palestine isn’t the only situation where we’ve seen this play out historically. We’ve seen it in Canada with Indigenous residential schools, in the United States with justifications for the enslavement of African peoples. Pretty much all of Western colonialism is fuelled and legitimated in the scriptural injunction to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28: 19-20). Whereas that first evangelist, Paul spread the gospel from a position of weakness, offering the story of Jesus as a means of liberation from Rome, the white western church imposed that same story from a position of power to enslave and indenture.
Lent is our yearly reminder that Christianity is rooted in powerlessness, not power. It begins, as Heather preached last week with the story of Jesus in the wilderness, where Jesus rejects the power offered to him by Satan. Why? Because God and God’s ways are found in powerlessness, on our utter reliance on grace. The temptation Jesus faced was to turn his back on powerlessness; to become self-sufficient, to go out alone. The more self-sufficient we are the more isolated we become, the more separated from others. Power demands that it be defended and protected, making it much more difficult to be open to Love’s promptings and calls.
This doesn’t mean that if we have power we can’t be faithful people, it just means that the more power we possess the more intentional we have to be about getting in touch with our powerlessness and submitting our lives to God’s will, to Love. The more intentional we have to be about grounding our lives in gratitude so we can realize how much of what we have and what we are is not of our doing, how much is gift. The more intentional we have to be at realizing the people who’ve gotten us where we are and continue to support and sustain us and our endeavours. The more intentional we need to be about connecting to nature, seeing ourselves as part of creation not set apart from it, seeing the grace that sustains our living.
Perhaps that’s one of the blessings of a pandemic Lent, We don’t have to work hard at getting in touch with our powerlessness this year. Who among us doesn’t feel like a cork in the sea, tossed about by this pandemic. Who among us doesn’t yearn for a return to a time of uninhibited face to face gatherings, handshakes and hugs? Who among us isn’t aware of our vulnerability? Who among us isn’t aware of our interdependence and inter-connectedness in the gratitude toward the everyday heroes of the pandemic, in the realization that none of us will be safe until all of us are? Maybe this is the grace of a pandemic Lent, to see these yearnings and realizations as gifts. The pandemic has made clear what is so often hidden to Christians of power and means. Can we hold onto to this sense of powerlessness when we get out of this? Can we view this pandemic reality of powerlessness as God calling to our deepest yearnings for connection and meaning?
The promise of God given to Abraham and Sarah is that one day their descendants will no longer wander rootless, isolated and fearful. One day their descendants will have a home, have a sense of belonging. All they need to do is remember and live in the reality that they are utterly reliant on grace for it all. As the story continues with subsequent generations, to not forget who they are, to be satisfied to live as people of the promise given by God. To not be tempted by fear and ego to strive after the power that separates, isolates and dominates. We are inheritors of that promise. May we not be tempted by fear and ego but let faith guide us in the ways of love as we journey with Jesus during this Lenten pandemic period toward Jerusalem, toward the cross and the promise of what lies beyond.
Rev. Joe Gaspar