March 13, 2022: Sermon Preached by Myrna Koonce

Promise and oppression

Like many of you here, I suspect, I love going to Popham Beach. It has always felt to me like holy ground, and is a place in which over and over I have received healing from the hurts and conflicts of life. When the tide is coming in and the waves begin to cross the bridge of land that leads from the beach to the island, I have experienced the strange sensation of strands of warm and cold water wrapping around my legs and waist. I move one inch, it is bathtub warm, another, and it is icy cold.

This was how I felt when immersing myself in the readings for this week. Specifically what caught me, and caught me up, were the strands of promise and oppression. I admit that I am, these days, often filled with dread at what will become of us as a human race, and so the strands of oppression stood out starkly at first.

I noticed that, in the part of the Genesis chapter which we did not read, verses 13-16, while Abram is asleep and in a “deep and terrifying darkness,” the Lord says to him, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years…” Yikes! He has not yet fathered Isaac and already future miseries of his descendants, the descendants who will be as numerous as the stars, are spread before him.

And then in our Gospel, there is the looming threat posed by Herod, an agent of the oppressive Roman empire, along with Jesus’s oblique reference to his own persecution and death and his lamentation over Jerusalem, implicitly foretelling the destruction of the city and the temple, which by the time Luke wrote his Gospel would have already taken place, in the year 70.

The traumatizing impact of the Babylonian exile cast a long shadow even down to Jesus’s time—indeed, he echoes Jeremiah’s exhortation: “if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.” (22:5). The threat and reality of exile, oppression and annihilation remembered and anticipated loom very large, and we are reminded of the prophets who told us to mend our ways and we would not listen, instead remaining, as Scripture says, “a stiff-necked people.”

At this time, from our relatively safe vantage point in America, we are witnessing an attempt by a more powerful nation to subjugate its smaller neighbor—really, its smaller relative. I can imagine our Ukrainian brothers and sisters asking, “How long, Lord, how long?” And the enemy saying to them, and to all of us, “Where now is your God?” Yet the autocrat who launched this invasion invokes his personal Orthodox beliefs and indeed the support of the Russian Orthodox Church in justifying the invasion as the destiny of his nation in accordance with God’s wishes. The marriage of the Christian church to the needs and desires of empire has spawned “God is on our side” thinking throughout Christian history, with occupiers and oppressors of all stripes convinced that they had God’s blessing and that Scripture supported their efforts. Indeed, in our reading today, God tells Abram he will give him lands that are currently occupied by other people, a righteous act, since those people are engaged in abominable practices and need to be turned toward God. The most terrifying part of being in the middle of such violent events is that, while we believe we know what is right and wrong, and it may seem so clear to us, we have no sure way of knowing whether God is “on our side.” We can condemn and resist the specific evils we witness, we can see God at work through faithful people tending to the suffering, yet the ways that God moves through human history and conflict are unpredictable and sometimes incomprehensible.

I have to confess, I feel strongly the weight of divine judgment in our readings, and wonder about the many ways in which we are rejecting God and Jesus today. Why do we refuse to run under Jesus’ wings when he calls us? What are we turning to instead of God, or worse, turning to falsely in God’s name? Our temptations are many, especially in our affluent society, especially in our comfortable lives. Too often, our god is our belly, as Paul says. Where is the hope for us, in our fallenness? How can we heal and bring light in the midst of terrible darkness?

And that is when the strands of promise start to emerge. For after God foretells the Egyptian slavery, God promises that he will deliver the Hebrews, and Abram’s descendants will be restored and receive blessings in due time. Abram accepts God’s plan with both its future terrors and its enduring covenant. Rather shockingly, God pledges God’s own self to this covenant—many scholars see the flaming torch and smoking fire pot as symbols of God, who passes through the severed halves of the sacrificed animals in an oath which means, “If I break my promise, may I be split in two as these have been.” God will be with us even when God seems to have abandoned us.

And the dire words of Jesus contain the seeds of his promise. Yes, he will call to the people of Jerusalem and they will not heed his call. Yes, Jesus will be arrested, tried, and crucified. But as Jesus tells the Pharisees, I am casting out demons and performing cures. I have work to do. I am not going to stop. Jesus came to transform our hearts, and is always calling us—he does not stop! He is the embodiment of God’s infinite love, and will keep loving us even when we reject that love and the discipline it requires. And eventually, he will love us into full communion with God.

That is what I find in the unexpected image of a hen gathering her chicks. Imagine the sheer capaciousness of this possibility! All of us can fit under Jesus’s wings. All of us. We have but to turn toward him, let go of our fears, let go of the evil that enslaves us, and simply, wholeheartedly receive that love which then gives us the bravery we need to seek the truth and to strive for wholeness in a broken world.

So what are we to do, in this time of Lent, in this time of aggression, in this precarious time for our world? I believe that continuing to hope against all hope is our only way forward, so that we may be strengthened to care for, speak up for and connect with those who suffer. We must dream big! I would like to share a poem that I encountered recently, one that acknowledges the interweaving strands of oppression and promise, and the deep power of prayer. Some of you may have already read it and meditated upon it/

The poem was written by Ann Weems, known in her lifetime as the “Presbyterian poet laureate.” The title is “I No Longer Pray for Peace.”

“On the edge of war, one foot already in,

I no longer pray for peace:

I pray for miracles.

I pray that stone hearts will turn

to tenderheartedness,

and evil intentions will turn

to mercifulness,

and all the soldiers already deployed

will be snatched out of harm’s way,

and the whole world will be

astounded onto its knees.

I pray that all the “God talk”

will take bones,

and stand up and shed

its cloak of faithlessness,

and walk again in its powerful truth.

I pray that the whole world might

sit down together and share

its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,

but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools

who never seem to give up on

the scandalousness of our faith:

that we are loved by God….

that we can truly love one another.

I no longer pray for peace:

I pray for miracles.”

May it be so. Amen.