Tag Archives: Sermon

Bubonic Reformation & COVID-19 Reformation

John 8:31–36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 (Read the whole passage)

A sure sign for Lutherans that the end of the church year is just around the corner, is the Sunday when we break out A Mighty Fortress, put out the red paraments and vestments, and remind ourselves from whence we came – Reformation Sunday. 

And here in 2020, we are 503 years on from the commemoration of the day when Martin Luther went to the church in Wittenberg where he nailed to the door his 95 Theses regarding the sale of indulges and the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. While some might argue the Reformation was already on its way, this moment is often remembered as the spark that began the period of great change in the way Christians around the world would gather, worship and ultimately understand salvation and faith. 

And interestingly enough, the reformation also took place during a plague. The bubonic plague had been cropping up around Europe for decades and in 1527 it came to Wittenberg. Martin Luther wrote to a friend with some advice about how to minister and care for his people during that time. He said, 

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

So it seems that Reformation and pandemic go hand in hand. And with all that we as the church have endured and adapted to during the past months of the COVID-19 Pandemic,  one might wonder if we too are experiencing a reformation of sorts, a transformation in the way we gather, worship and ultimately understand salvation and faith. 

As we sort out just what is going in our world and in our community faith, it is perhaps appropriate that today we contemplate the Reformation. On this day, we remember Martin Luther standing up against the injustices of the pope and the church – the selling of salvation, the abuses by church leaders, the exploitation of the faithful. We remember that our faith and our beliefs are important. Important enough to die for, important enough to defend. 

But on Reformation Sunday we also remember the division that change caused. We remember those who died as a result of the the protests of the Reformers. We remember that between 125,000 to 250,000 people died in the peasants war that was inspired by Luther’s writings. We remember that after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door the church in Wittenberg, Christianity was split from 2 denominations (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) into as many as 25,000 today. And these divisions have caused violence, chaos, oppression, abuse, suffering and death for 500 years.

Reformation Sunday is day of two realities. Of promise, hope and freedom, contrasted by division, conflict and oppression.

Today, as you notice the red paraments that adorn the chancel you may know that red is one of the 5 liturgical colours, but only used a handful of Sundays each year. Red is the colour we use to symbolize the Holy Spirit. The changing, transforming, reforming work of the holy spirit among us. Red is used on Pentecost when we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples, red is used for the spirits call names in the ordination of clergy and today Red is for spirit moving in the reformation Reformation. 

And Red is also used to remember martyrs in the church. 

The red reminds us of this mixed experience of Reformation. A moment of change and hope and renewal. A moment of struggle, suffering and death. 

Our observance of Reformation speaks to our time. It speaks to great change we are undergoing from how we worship, gather and build community as a church, to our understanding and attitudes of race, racism and oppression, to the re-working of our social safety nets, to how we will care for a suffering climate. 

And it speaks to the suffering and struggle that is still ongoing. To those who are sick and dying during this pandemic, those who giving every ounce of strength to care for strangers and their community, in hospitals, schools, grocery stores and so many more places. To how this moment has exposed the vulnerability of poor who are both most affected by the virus and who are forced to work the front lines our society in order to make ends meet. 

Fittingly, Reformation Sunday is about all of these things and more. About the conflicting experiences of division, conflict and war that accompanied the Reformation, as well as the striving for justice, the proclamation of grace and mercy, the hope we have in God’s promises. 

God’s promises like we hear Jesus utter today, promises like, 

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

And if there is anything to remember today it is that. 

Even as Canada and the world struggles with this pandemic while considering the opportunity for radical change. Even as Reformation Sunday demands that we recall hope and the struggle: the gospel proclamation of Martin Luther and the reformers, the bold declaration of grace through faith alone, that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and that this belief is important enough to stand up for contrasted with the division, conflict, violence and suffering caused by the reformation. Even as these realities of both 2020 and 1517 sit with us, they are ultimately still the second most important things today. 

Because even Reformation Sunday it is still about what each Sunday is about for Christians. 

Today is firstly about Christ. 

Today is about God and God’s mighty deeds among God’s people. Today is a reminder we simply cannot save ourselves on our own. 

Just as in today’s Gospel readings the Jews said that as descendants of Abraham they were slaves to no one (even though they had been slaves to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and now Romans). Just as Martin Luther declared that he and we we were not slaves to law and freed by God’s grace (even though he was threatened by the Pope and others). Just as we try to declare ourselves slaves to no virus or pandemic restrictions (even though cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise)…

We are still slaves to all of those things. We still must mask and social distance. We are still declared unrighteous by the law. We are slaves to fear, fear for our safety, fear of losing more, fear for being forgotten by God. 

No matter what our leaders declare, no matter the bravery we display, the sacrifices we make, the peace we try to uphold. We simply cannot save ourselves. We simply cannot free ourselves. 

We are slaves to sin, slaves to suffering, slaves to death, and there is nothing we can do about it. 

But that is why today is ultimately about Christ. 

Today is about the promise that God gives to slaves. To those enslaved by sin, those enslaved by suffering, to those enslaved by death. Today, is about the promise that God gives to us. The promise that despite our condition, despite our slavery, that God is showing us mercy, God is giving us grace, God is making us free. Free in the son. 

And this promise of freedom comes to us first in baptism. In baptism where we drown and die to sin, and where we rise to new life in Christ. 

So it is fitting today, that of all the things that Reformation might have us consider, the good and that bad, the hopeful and depressing… that the most important truth is God’s promise given to us first in the waters of baptism. The promise we belong to God, and that God’ names and claims us as God’s children. That no matter what befalls us, plague or war, violence or hate, suffering or tribulation, that God’s promise for us will hold: 

That God is our Mighty Fortress
That God is our Refuge and Strength
That God is redemption from sin
That God is freedom found in Christ
That God is our God and we are God’s people. 

And this promise is a powerful act of defiance against fear and violence, against oppression and powerlessness for us to proclaim this gospel truth today. That this gospel proclamation, that this reminder of what is central in our chaotic world, that our worshiping together in faith is an act of hope. That God is passing on through us, through the Body of Christ, this hope and this promise of grace to the world. 

Even while we are slaves to sin, to suffering and most of all to death, we pass on our hope for the future. A future promised by God in the midst of slavery. A future given by grace and mercy, even though we are dead. A future found with New Life in Christ. 

Having only Bad Choices – God’s Third Option

Matthew 18:21-35
21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
(Read the whole passage)

I wonder what was going through the minds of the Israelites standing on the banks of the Red Sea… an army chasing them down from behind and turbulent waters ahead of them. No good options, only bad ones. 

Here we are, into month 7 of this global pandemic, and it feels strange to be preaching again about a virus… and yet this illness that spreads so easily and makes just enough folks really sick has changed life and the way we live it. It is in the news every day, it has become an important factor in nearly every decision we make from how to buy groceries, to visiting with family, to going to work or school or even coming to church. 

We have been walking along side the stories of God’s people during this entire pandemic in a new way, a way different from before when we likely felt degrees of separation from the struggle. Again and again we have found the world and story that we have been living out in real time is one that is already told and experienced in the bible. From Abraham and Sarah and their descendants making their way in the wilderness, to the disciples cluelessly following Jesus, to Moses and the Israelites preparing to escape Egypt. 

We are firmly in the back half of this long season of green. 15 Sundays into Ordinary Time, and there are only ten or so left before we flip the calendar on a new church year in Advent. Yet, even now, those ten weeks seem like they are still a lifetime away, the predictability of our lives has been taken from us as we wait each day to hear whether or not this pandemic thing is getting better or worse. 

Along side the the story of the Israelites feeling Egypt’s armies and crossing through the parted waters of the Red Sea, Peter asks Jesus how many times ought he to forgive. Peter’s guess was a number he thought to be quite generous. 7 times. But Jesus responds by multiplying that number 70 times 7. Which is not to say 490 times, but forgiveness ought to be offered more times than Peter imagines possible. 

There is something about the Israelites standing on the brink of destruction or disaster that goes with Peter’s question about forgiveness. 

As the people of Israel, the community of God’s people stood there on the banks of the seashore, the feeling of helplessness and defeat must have been overwhelming. There was no good choice to make, only bad options. Options that both include death for many. Death at the hands of Egyptians soldiers, or death in the waters.

In the same way as Peter considers forgiveness, he too stands between hard choices. Forgiveness really exists at the edge of a difficult choice, to let go of harms and wrongs done. Does forgiveness condone bad behaviour? Does it simply allow for more harm and abuse? Or does not forgiving hold us in bitterness and judgment, in resentment and anger? There is no easy answer or obvious choice. 

The people of Israel and Peter are standing at the precipice of bad options and choices all around. Not dissimilar to where we are stand theses days. We too have been struggling with how to move forward in life when there are are only bad and unsatisfactory options all around us. Do we stay home or risk seeing family and friends for the sake of mental health and wellbeing. Do we go back to workplaces and jobs risking exposure but needing to support businesses and the economy? Do we send children to school with untold numbers of contacts or do we risk their growth, learning and development. 

And of course, do we begin gathering in-person for ministry and worship as churches once again? Is the community that we share in this place worth the risk of transmission? Do the restrictions placed on how we worship (masks, no singing, no visiting, socially distant and brief) justify the effort to be together inside of a beloved church building and church home?

Today, the Lord God of Israel and Jesus the Christ offer third options. A parting of the waters, a new and unexpected pathway to salvation. An understanding of forgiveness that expands far beyond what seems generous and reasonable at first. 

Yet, as Moses raises his staff and hands over the sea and the waters part… I am not so sure that stepping into the newly revealed sea bed would have felt any safer. I don’t think I would have been the first to follow the path between the two walls of water, not knowing if or when they might come crashing down. Salvation and rescue doesn’t always feel low-risk and secure. Being safe isn’t always comfortable.

Yet, as Jesus speaks of forgiveness beyond what Peter can imagine, forgiveness that is not just generous but abundant and lavish. Forgiveness that extends beyond close friends and family, that is given for the whole community, for all of creation… I am not sure I would want to walk away from the ability to hold others accountable, to hold them in my judgment… who knows how that might be taken advantage of. Letting go my judgment and resentment doesn’t feel natural or straight forward. Setting feelings and gut instincts and coping mechanisms aside isn’t easy. 

Yet, the Lord God of Israel brings the people through the waters to safety to other side and on their way to the promised land. 

Yet. Christ goes to the cross and even while hanging there in the final judgment of humanity, prays for mercy and forgiveness for all of us. 

For you see, God reveals something beyond our impossible choices, beyond the risk of armies and raging waters. God pours out forgiveness, release from judgement and condemnation that cannot fathom. 

God invokes options and futures that we cannot conceive of. Christ shows us the way to abundant new life beyond ourselves, and beyond what feels safe. 

And for us, for the church as we face a world full of bad options, full of risks and stress and anxiety about what the right thing to do is, God is working among us already, parting waters that will send us on our way to the promised land – there just might be 40 years in the wilderness first. 

And Christ is exhorting us to forgiveness knowing that resurrection and new life have begun already in our world, even if the cross of Good Friday comes first. 

God in Christ promises that even through this pandemic, even through the separation of communities, friends and family, even through the limitations on the way we worship and the way we can gather… that the transformation and salvation of God’s people has already begun… that there will be parted waters ahead for us, that there’s abundant forgiveness waiting for us… that a new way of living and being in the world for this pandemic church of 2020 is on its way. 

We might feel stuck to between bad choices theses day, but God is with us, God is beside us, God is among us… carrying us to the new and unexpected thing that we cannot imagine yet. 

Because God has already brought God’s people, and will bring us, through the struggle and to the other side, 

to the promised land 

of mercy and new life. 

Wrestling with God, a hungry crowd of 5000 and a surviving a pandemic

GOSPEL: Matthew 14:13-21
16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

If you were all here in person, I would probably begin with an informal survey where you would raise your hand. Even though you aren’t here, we are going to try it anyways. I’ll pretend like I know what your answers are. 

So 4 and half months into this pandemic, who here is feeling a little tired of social distancing measures? 

Most of you? Okay, that makes sense. 

Who here is ready to go back to normal? 

Everyone? I can see that. 

Who has learned or acquired some new skills or abilities during this time, such as new technologies or cooking and baking or puzzles or new workout routines? 

Ah, yes, I see a lot of hands up. 

Who here finds themselves judging pre-pandemic tv shows by pandemic standards, as in hey those people aren’t social distancing!? 

Yup, a lot us. 

Who finds themselves judging others about their social distancing while out and about in public?

Be honest now. Yeah, most of us eh?

Who here has bent a social distancing rule to see family or friends? 

Yeah, almost all of us.

Who is ready of trust that most other people will diligently follow restrictions in order to keep us all safe?

That few of you… umm hmmm… 

Okay, who feels completely confident in government plans to re-open our economy safely and without unnecessarily increasing risk? Including the re-opening of schools?

Anyone? I am not surprised. 

Who is anxious about jumping back into fully participating in public life before a vaccine? 

Wow… most of us… yup….

So on the surface our little informal survey shows a pretty mixed response. Most of us are pretty tired of all the pandemic restrictions and ready for life to go back to normal. Yet, we also are finding it hard to trust that our neighbour and trust political leaders to safely guide us through this pandemic. And most of us are guilty of bending the social distancing rules ourselves. 

So we want all this stuff to be over, but we aren’t sure we are ready to trust the outside world. 

This Sunday, on the 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time, we continue with the story of Jacob and his family (the grandson of Sarah and Abraham). We also hear a family story from Jesus’ life and ministry, the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two small fish. And in both, there is a glimpse of just where we may be at these days.

Jacob is the second born Son of Isaac. And Isaac the second born Son of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham is one of two brothers. And from Abraham all the way to Jacob’s own sons, God shows a surprising pattern of preferring second born sons to pass on the covenant, the promise given to God’s chosen people… when of course by normal Hebrew custom, the double portion and birthright was passed on to eldest sons. 

So far we have heard the stories of Isaac following his brother Esau by holding onto his heal right out of the womb. And then tricking his older brother out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob then met the angels of God descending from heaven on a ladder. And last week Jacob was tricked himself into years of servitude in oder to marry the woman he loved. Women with whom he would father 13 sons and more daughters. 

Yet, finally this week we meet Jacob in an unusual place. He is into solitude. Despite being surrounded by his wives, children, servants and herds he is fearful about finally being reunited with his estranged brother. 

As Jacob sends his large posse ahead, he spend the night alone on the river Jabbok. There he encounters and then wrestles with God. 

While Jacob encounters and wrestles with God alone, the disciples are wrestling with things in the midst of a great crowd. Shortly after the popular John the Baptist was executed by King Herod, a community in shock gathers around Jesus. Even as Jesus mourns his cousin, he is confronted by a community in crisis. A great crowd gathers before him and he teaches and heals them. 

By the end of the day, the disciples are worried about feeding the masses. They implore Jesus to send the crowds to the villages for food. But Jesus tells them to feed the crowds and all that they can come up with 5 loaves and two fish. Seemingly not enough for 5000. 

Jacob’s lonely dark night of the soul and the disciple’s consternation about the feeding the crowd may seem to have little in common at first glance, yet in both stories there is wrestling with circumstances. Jacob wrestles not just with the unknown stranger in his tent, but with the prospect of meeting his estranged brother across the river. The disciples wrestle not just with feeding the crowds, but with understanding just what is going on with their beloved teacher as he compassionately preaches to the masses in crisis. 

Mixed feelings about complicated situations all around. 

Certainly we recognize the wrestling. Certainly we recognize the difficulty understanding just what and who we are wrestling with and why. 

As we struggle with how long this pandemic is lasting with no clear timeline for an end in sight we wrestle with our feelings of wanting life to go back to normal and fearing a serious outbreak of the virus in our community. 

Jacob chooses to wrestle with this stranger and to focus on winning a blessing, rather than the looming confrontation with his brother in the morning. The disciples become event planners and managers for Jesus, focusing on the practicality of feeding the crowds rather the looming confrontation between their Messiah Master and the religious authorities (like his cousin John just faced). 

And our wrestling pushes us to focus on issues other than the big ones before us. Our whole world is debating the technicalities of safe re-opening. We are twisting ourselves in knot over border closures, self-quarantine requirements, safely opening malls and hair salons, remote working conditions, school and day care reopening and of course resuming in-person church services. We are trying to avoid thinking about how this prolonged pandemic and 2nd wave realities will force us re-evaluate how we structure out society, what we consider safe working conditions, how we support families, the elderly, students rather than forcing so many to live on the brink of financial ruin just to keep our consumption of cheap products habits afloat. 

We would rather wrestle all night and demand a blessing or mask wearing then consider what our world needs to become on the other side of this pandemic. We would rather event plan the catering than consider just what God might be already up to in our midst, changing and transforming and preparing our community for the next thing by giving us what we need. 

And yet, as Jacob wrestles, God blesses him with a new name. Israel – the one who wrestles with God (and wins!). A new name confirming his identity as the bearer of his families birthright, the covenant and promise of God’s chosen people. An identity confirmed by the embrace of his brother Esau, whom God had blessed in the way that Esau needed.

And as the disciples distribute the loves and fish, they discover that their Messiah teacher insists on being revealed even in event planning. As they pass the food around the meagre offering blessed by Jesus, they discover an unimaginable abundance. Enough food to feed thousands and 12 baskets left over – enough for the 12 tribes of Israel (the 12 sons of Jacob). 

And certainly, as we wrestle with our pandemic world… with our event planning and insistence on the things we imagine to be of importance, God is already at work preparing to surprise us with the very things we need. 

With the abundance of covenant promise. 

With the blessing and identity that we have trouble accepting. 

With the revelation of the divine even in event planning. 

God is already at work bestowing us with the gospel promise of life and salvation no matter how we gather to hear it – in person or online. 

God is already preparing to walk with us into places that we never imagined we would fear, workplaces and schools, malls and restaurants. And God promises to go with us out into the world or stay with us at home. 

God is already carrying our tired and aching souls. Tired from pandemic, tired from compliance. Aching for community, aching for the familiar. 

God is already where we need God to be, even when, especially when, we would rather wrestle with some other problem, focus on some other issue to keep from having to face the looming danger, the presenting problem, the uncertainty of today that was unforeseen yesterday, and the uncertainty of tomorrow that is unimaginable today.

And so today, with mixed feelings prevalent in our hearts and minds, with wrestling with the things we think we can control in the face of problems and overwhelming anxiety… we go with Jacob across the Jabbok river, we collect the abundance of 5 loaves and two fish with the disciples…

Today, God is already before us, already in our future, already preparing us for the world we need to face. God is already making ready the blessing and abundance we need. 

Today, God reveals to us again that God is already ahead of us, already in the places we have mixed feelings about going toward… And God promises that no matter what will befall us that our future is held in God’s hands. 

The Kingdom of Heaven Isn’t In Hidden Places But In Surprising Places Meant to be Found

GOSPEL: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
{Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

It was a month ago that I last preached a sermon to you. And a lot can change in a month’s time. 

A month ago COVID-19 was slowly but surely being socially distanced out of our communities (although with some alarming rising case numbers in the US). Our province of Manitoba was talking a lot about restarting economies and lifting restrictions. The protests of May were falling out of the public awareness and the end of school and summer plans were on the minds of most. 

Today, surging case numbers across Canada and a tsunami of cases numbers and deaths are crashing into our neighbours to south. Our Manitoba government’s plan to further lift restrictions to near normal levels of activity was met with swift push back from citizens. Political leaders in Canada are under ethics violations for possibly giving wealthy government contracts as favours to a cozy with politicians WE charity. And south of border an unstable President with strong facist tendencies is sending in secret police to escalate non-violent protests and punish protestors all while looking like the “law and order” candidate to his electoral base of support.

No to mention the persistent issues of racism, discrimination (such as recent attitudes towards Hutterites in Manitoba in response to covid outbreaks) police brutality, the unavailability of childcare for working parents, questions about a safe return to school in the fall, the outsized effect of this economic downturn on women and the recovery being put on the back of essential workers who are often the poorest among us. 

Phew… does that about cover the last month?

Nothing in 2020 has been normal or expected and each day, week, month brings with it things that we wouldn’t imagine being possible. 

And somehow in the midst of this unimaginable world we are living in, we are left to sort through what God might have to say about all of it, and just where the good news of the Kingdom of God might be. 

Today, we continue along into our season of green Ordinary Time. Jesus again is speaking in agricultural terms and in parables. And the people of Genesis, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah continue to navigate their way through the world with God’s covenant promise along side them. Their complicated story continues with Abraham and Sarah’s grandson Jacob making agreements for marriage only to be tricked into having to do twice as much work in order to get the woman he wants to marry. 

And somewhere in the collision of our COVID world and Jacob, Leah and Rachel’s reality, we find something of our story being retold in the biblical witness. Somewhere in the parables of Kingdom that Jesus tells today, we are reminded of where the Kingdom of heaven is revealed. 

Today, Jacob sets out to make a deal Laban for marrying his daughter Rachel. Jacob as you recall is Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, son of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob we already know is a trickster. He has tricked his older brother Esau out of his inheritance and wrestled with God. Yet, when it comes time to negotiate with Laban he meets his match and Laban tricks Jacob into marrying both of his daughters for 14 years of work. 

But of course there is a back story here. Laban is not some vague relative as the story suggests, but the brother of Jacob’s mother… Laban is Jacob’s uncle. And when Laban was younger, Abraham sent his favourite servant to find a wife of Jacob’s father Isaac. Laban was in charge of that negotiation too. But the clever servant managed to trick Laban to giving Rebekah away for less than he wanted, by appealing to divine Providence. 

So this time Laban is ready to negotiate, maybe even to get back with interest what he lost out on by negotiating harder and tricking Jacob. 

So now let’s set aside. The problematic aspect of this story. The close family relationships, the sale of women as if they are chattel to be owned and traded for. 

This family is a complicated system and web of relationships. And we know that after this Jacob ends up fathering children from 4 women, Leah and Rachel and their two maids, Bilhah and Zilphah. And the 12 sons that result become the forebears of the 12 tribes of Israel, with the most famous son, Joseph, whom after being sold in slavery by his brothers saves his family from slavery by bringing them into Egypt… which then leads us to the story of Moses and so on. 

In fact, the twists and turns of the story of the family of Sarah and Abraham feel awfully familiar. Jacob puts in the time and work with the promise of getting what he wants at the end, only to find out he has to start all over sounds a lot like what many of us are feeling after months of staying home only have to a resurgence of the virus. 

What Jacob imagined for his life and what he ended up getting in Rachel and Leah and his many children sound an awful lot like the expectations we hold for coming out on the other side of this pandemic wanting things to go back to normal while at the same time knowing that 2020 is going to change our lives and world forever in ways we cannot imagine. 

As the new coronavirus surprises at each turn,

As we grow tired of restricting our lives for what can feel like an invisible benefit,

As we juggle keeping people safe, healthy both physically and economically during this pandemic, 

As politicians make messy promises and make self-serving decisions,

And as the people of the world having unimaginable stressors placed on us…

Maybe we are just an extension of the story of Abraham and Sarah’s family. 

And maybe as they did, we might wonder what does God has to do with us? What does God have planned for us? Where is the good news of the Kingdom of heaven?

As Jesus speaks in parables today, he describes the Kingdom of God over and over again. The Kingdom of God is like… Like mustard seed, like yeast, like a treasure in a field, like a fine pearl and so on. 

And we might wonder, why is that the Kingdom seems to be in hidden places? 

But I think that it isn’t about where the Kingdom is hidden, but that the Kingdom is found. Found in unexpected places, founds where we wouldn’t usually think to look, found in the messy and surprising places of life. 

The message of these parables isn’t that God’s kingdom is hidden from us, but that it is constantly being found. Found where? Amongst our complicated and twisting and turning lives. And boy do we know about complicated, twisting, turning life, don’t we?

The Kingdom of heaven is constantly showing up in places we never imagined it would be, so that in our complicated, twisting and turning lives, the good news of God’s love and life given for us keeps finding us. 

The Kingdom of heaven that was promised to Abraham and Sarah in the covenant at the beginning of their story, and that God keeps bringing back to this family, this chosen people over and over again as they cast about in the wilderness. 

The Kingdom that we got used to hearing promised to us in person, at church, and next to our neighbour, at the font and at the table, has been finding us through computer screens, through zoom calls, text messages and over the phone. 

The Kingdom of God that is hard to see, hard to know, hard to believe some days, is finding us unexpectedly and surprisingly the care that we have been giving to one another in hard and difficult times of which we don’t when the ending will come. 

Today, our story, like Jacob, Leah and Rachel’s seems to start and stall. Our world, like theirs, is a world with twist and turns and challenges and surprises. And yet in the midst of that, the promise that God made in beginning, the promise of the covenant, the promise of the Kingom, the promise of love and live given for us…. That promise somehow keeps finding us. The God of that promise keeps finding us, keeps showing up where wouldn’t expect to find God, or to be found by God. 

And God promises that the complications of this life won’t overwhelm us, that the surprises of this world will not define us… but rather the Kingdom of Heaven will. 

God promises that when we wonder where God is in this messy world of ours, that God is coming and finding us in the Kingdom of God. 

WIlderness and Pandemic – Doubting the Promise with Sarah and Hagar

Genesis 21:8-21
8The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Read the whole passage)

My son, with all the gravitas that a 6-year-old can muster, frequently refers to the COVID-19 Pandemic as the “Time Period.” 

“When this time period ends,” he will say, “we can see our friends again.”

While his confusion with pandemic terminology is smile inducing, there is a heartbreaking earnestness as well.

I also think there is something to his unintentional term… While many others have referred to this pandemic experience as an extended Lent, an extended time of sacrifice, I am not so sure that is what we are experiencing. 

Not all experiences of sacrifice and loss are the same, and this pandemic isn’t a short, defined time of sacrifice with a known end point like Lent is. 

It is a time period, a new way of being people and being communities and being society that we are going to have to live with for quite some time to come. A time period indeed. 

This is a transitional time period, a time when everything is being changed around us, whether we agree or not. 

Last week, we set out into the Wilderness with Abraham and Sarah. Their journey was not a short one. In fact, they began a journey that kept on going for generations, as Sarah laughed at the prospect of giving birth, yet then saw the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaac. 

This wilderness journey of Abraham and Sarah feels like it is a story that is telling our story today. When so many of the familiar stories we hear on TV or in books or in movies fail to speak to this pandemic yet, this story of faith is an ancient version of our current reality. 

No, they weren’t trying to avoid a plague, but they were people who were set out into the unknown with no map, no instructions other than occasional updates from God, on what to do and where to go. And things that they never imagined possible happened to them. It was messy and complex and things often didn’t go right and they often showed a lack of trust or faith in the covenant, the promise that set them out on their journey in the first place. 

Their story sounds a lot of like ours doesn’t it? A story where we can see the same feelings, emotions, fears and anxieties that we are bearing. An immediacy that they were forced to live in… not knowing the plan for the future means you have to live in the moment. And living in the moment, just surviving day-to-day can make it hard to trust God.

Today, as we hear the next chapter in their journey, we are reminded that the promised Isaac who arrived last week was not, in fact, Abraham’s first son. Ishmael, whom Abraham conceived with Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, was Abraham’s first born. 

And Sarah who laughed at the absurdity of bearing a son in her old age, is fearful that the child of promise would not receive God’s promise made. 

So she implores her husband to send Hagar and Ishamel away. 

Which Abraham does by God’s direction. 

And so cast out in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael go. But it isn’t long before they are in dire trouble… and facing an impossible choice, to die with her son, or to at least have one of them survive, Hagar leaves her son under a bush and walks away. 

Filled with unimaginable grief at her impossible choice, Hagar implores God to least spare her watching her son die. 

Two women in the wilderness discover new complications, new unimaginable circumstances, new impossibilities, new absurdities. They are in not just in the wilderness, but wilderness upon wilderness, complication upon complication, mess upon mess. 

How could either Sarah or Hagar be expected to carry on in faith, to trust that God’ promises would hold true? They were both human beings. 

Like Sarah, we too have been living in wilderness upon wilderness. Even though it seemed like the whole world was put on pause in the early stages of this pandemic we soon discovered it was not. Violence, house fires, gun shots and a shooter dressed like the RCMP in Nova Scotia cracked open the heart of a nation. George Floyd was murdered underneath the knee of a police officer, causing protests to erupt around the world. Accusations of racism and discrimination have tarnished the reputation of one of the crown jewels of our city at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And the one party leader of colour in Canada was kicked out of the house of commons after he called another MP a racist after that MP scuttled the passage of bill declaring the existence of systemic racism in the RCMP. 

Wilderness upon wilderness. Complication upon complication. Mess upon mess. 

Even though Sarah had been given a child of the promise, she couldn’t keep up the faith. She was human after all. 

Even though Hagar had been given a child of the promises she couldn’t keep up the faith. She too was human. 

And even though we are made children of the promise in the Waters, even though we are given a new identity and belonging in the bread and wine, even though we are given forgiveness and new life in the Word, we too cannot believe the promise, day after day, week after week, year after year. It is simply not in us to keep the faith that way…. The wilderness gets us every time. Ever since the garden of Eden, ever since Adam and Eve trusted themselves above God. We hear the promise, but cannot keep up the faith. 

And yet, the promise does not depend on us. 

When Sarah laughed, God still brought new life into a barren womb. 

Almost casually, God waltzes into Sarah and Abraham’s wilderness and declares that the promise will be fulfilled. 

When Hagar was at the limit and prepared to give up, God answers Hagar’s pleas with gentle assurance, with water and the renewed covenant.  

When these women cannot keep the faith, God’s promise does not rely on their ability to believe it. 

Instead God’s promise holds true, God promises includes wilderness moments, wilderness upon wilderness moments. God’s plan for Sarah and Hagar, for Isaac and Ishmael extends beyond their present wilderness into future generations. God’s plan for these first families of faith begin in wilderness, in transition, in wandering through the unknown. 

And the convent extends through generations, through kingdoms, through exodus and exile, from judges and prophets, all the way to Messiah. And Messiah’s promise of Good News comes through fledgling communities to empires, institutions and faithful generations upon generations to us. 

And even with all of that. 

Even as we laugh at the absurd promise that we are God’s Body, knit together in water, bread and wine, when we cannot even be in each other’s presence, let alone share these things… God comes into our wilderness with the Word, the Word of promises given for us, week after week. 

Even as we are prepared to give up, unable to keep the faith in the face of pandemics, and shootings, and police brutality. In the face of generations of racist systems, and hypocritical institutions, hypocritical leaders who do not get it… God deals gently with us, granting promise  in the word, relief for parched and cracked souls nearing death. 

And in the wilderness that keeps us from seeing beyond the present, God’s declares that God has plans for our future, plans that span generations and that include multitudes more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

God promises that God is not done with us, wether we believe it or not, whether our wilderness upon wilderness is more than we can bear or not. 

And in this wilderness, this transition, God reminds us again our story is being told again, told in ancient stories of faith, told in the present moment that we can see today. 

And so like Sarah and Hagar we fail to keep the faith…

We cannot help it. 

But God can.

And God does. 

And God declares that God’s promises will bring us through the wilderness, through the wilderness upon wilderness, to when this Time Period is over and we will see our friends again. 

In the meantime, God’s promises will still hold true, even when we don’t believe them…

Promises that will carry us through the wilderness to the promised land.