A sermon on Romans 4: 13-25 & Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 by Sylvia Sandeman
“Abraham hung onto his hope, even when it seemed utterly hopeless”
These were the words that met me when I first looked at today’s readings. Little did I know how often in the coming days I was to meet those words again, not quite in the same way but about difficult situations in which we are called to hope about.
Today I will bring to you, it is not so much a homily, but more an anthology of stories based on hope. In some ways I would like to have simply given you all an anthology of the stories, words, reflections and poems that I have encountered and allow you to find your own life links to them as I found mine. But I have compromised – some stories I will tell you and others are simply in the sheet that you have been given.
In today’s readings we encounter Abraham, who God has called, to leave his homeland, his relatives and his father’s house and to travel to an unknown destination – simply God said to him “to a place that I will give you.” God also makes a covenant with Abraham that he will be the father of many nations. So Abraham leaves Ur and travels to Haran where he stays until his father dies. When he was 75 – which is older than anyone here, he up roots the family again and travels to Canaan. The writer to the Hebrews says, “he lived as a foreigner and in tents in the land that the Lord had promised him as did Isaac his son and Jacob his grandson.”
Those of us here who have left the land of our birth know something of what it is like to do this, how it is to leave loved ones not know if you will see them again and how it is to be a foreigner in a new land but such was his faith and trust in this God who called him that he was prepared to obey Gods command.
Then when he was 99 – God comes to him again and renews His covenant with him. Up till now his name had in fact been Abram and God tells him that from now on it will be Abraham meaning “father of many”
So it is in the face of this impossible situation – his old age and his wife Sarah’s infertility – that he believes that what God says will happen –that he and Sarah will have a child – “he hangs onto his hope, even when it seemed utterly hopeless”
So what is hope? It is said that Hope is often a psychological necessity if human kind is to envisage any future at all. But such hope is often transient and illusionary and may be spoken of as” a faint hope” or a “desperate hope” or perhaps a “trembling hope”. Indicating that it is in no way certain. This however is not the hope that the Scriptures generally speak of, Scriptural hope is something very different.
For scriptural hope is not a matter of temperament, or conditional on the current circumstances, or human possibilities. It does not depend on what a person possesses, or what a person may be able to do for themselves, nor what others can do for them.
The scriptural “hope” is based on the nature of the living God, who acts and can be trusted so hope becomes possible. It is inseparable from faith in God based on who God is and what he has done in the past and is doing through Christ. This hope is not like a kite at the mercy of the changing winds. The writer of the Hebrews says “it is the anchor of the soul – sure and steadfast penetrating down into the invisible eternal world. So because of faith in this God we have the assurance that the things that we hope for are real and that our hope will not disappoint us.
So what words of Hope have I heard in recent times?
1. About President Obama’s presidency
The opening words on the special edition in “the Age” were – “A new Spirit – promising fresh hope.” Then inside Nelson Mandela is quoted as having said
“ You Mr President have brought a new voice of hope that these problems can be addressed and that we can change the world”
Also in the same edition Mr Rudd is reported to have said
“His message of Hope is not just for the Americans future but for the whole world”
The world is longing for a voice of hope in the midst of the current world economic climate and environmental issues. Even the President himself said “We have chosen hope over fear” This may well be true and while I do think that Obama my be able to do something’s that others have not – to put our hope in one man is not fair on him and it is not Christian Hope and will most likely disappoint us.
2. Next came the worse fires in the history of Victoria
As the horror of this event began to dawn on me it seemed as if slowly I began to bear the burden of our collective grief – I am sure others of you felt it. On the Tuesday after Black Saturday, I hardly dare open emails as they were all about the fires in some form and I wondered if we would break under the weight of the grief. The birth of a baby was spoken of as hope from the ashes. The Prime Minster in his speech on the Day of National Mourning spoke of “flags of hope” all over the fire ravaged communities and his final words were “rising in hope from the ashes of despair”. This time we are putting our hope not in God or one man but in who we are as Australians, in our courage, compassion and resilience. Again I believe this will take us forward, but it is not the hope that is spoken of about Abraham – who trusted and hoped in God in an impossible situation. In the God who we know was able to raise Jesus from the dead and bring new life out of death and the grave.
3. The story of Coventry Cathedral
On Thursday November 14th 1940 firebombs destroyed Coventry Cathedral also killing 568 of its citizens, when the city of Coventry suffered the longest air raid in one night on any British city in World War 2. Only the walls, tower and spire of the cathedral remained, while the wooden roof, oak ceiling, pews, floor and screen were all destroyed. Two precious symbols grew out of the destruction and the cathedral discovered a new ministry. One was the “Charred Cross”. A few days after the bombing two pieces of charred Oak beam that remained where wired together to form a cross and fixed in a dustbin at the East end of the ruins. This now famous symbol stands behind the stone altar in the Sanctuary of the Ruins with the words “Father Forgive” carved on the wall behind and is known around the world as the symbol of the Cathedral’s determination to inspire hope and as a declaration of the truth of the resurrection.
The second symbol is the Cross of Nails, which became a spark of life in the ministry of the new church. Ass the roof burnt large 14th century hand forged nails fell from the ceiling and littered the floor of the sanctuary. The following morning the idea came to form the nails into a cross. These crosses are now the symbol of the Cathedrals Ministry of International Reconciliation between all people on one hand and God on the other. So from the ashes of devastation symbols of hope arose that have grown in time to a full-scale ministry.
Two weeks ago we had a National Day of Mourning – I had recorded it and when I had finished watching it I realised that I was drawn unconsciously into the undercurrent of liturgy that was in the service. Perhaps those of you who saw it may think that I have taken it too far but this is what I felt.
We moved slowly, without haste, allowing time for thought and quietness to hear the stories and reflections of people, the crowd was sombre and quiet – there was no clapping or response or wasted words or meaningless actions. After the Princess Royal spoke on behalf of the Queen came the first response from the crowd – a few moments of clapping. Gradually some speakers latter the crowd clapped again as if they had begun to take their eyes off the horrific events for a moment and focus on what was being said.
Then we heard the strange sound of the “sopar” an ancient Jewish musical instrument – a symbol of aguish, hope and remembrance. Its primeval sound is like a cry from the heart and is used as a call to prayer and introspection at the Jewish New Year. But it is also a symbol of future hope and mending of a broken world.
With the hearing of this strange sound to my ears came a minute’s silence and for a few more moments we lingered in the ashes. Then a solo voice began to sing “One voice singing in the darkness – All it takes is one voice singing so they hear what’s on your mind and when you look around there’s more than one voice” and it finishes with the words – “ and everyone will sing”. The Prime Minster followed who they clapped before and after then Bruce Woodley with “I am Australian” – by this time people were beginning to singing and stood and even at the end did a very Australian thing –someone shout out afterwards “Sing it again” – something that I’m sure would never happen in polite society!!
In closing Ian Henderson said “so we will complete our message of hope by singing” – “Reach out and touch someone.” Which they did. People sang and held hands and stood and swayed and Mr Brumby was seen to be right into it. Somehow this sombre crowd, weighed by grief had been moved to a new place almost without knowing and I had moved with them.
Afterwards I realised that some of the grief had been lifted and the liturgical current had drawn me along to a new place of hopefulness. This caused me to reflect on our burden of grief and sadness that we as a community of faith have been carrying for some months after our own catastrophic event. Our responses had been similar in some ways to the bush fire victims.
There are some who have not returned to the place for whatever reason – and those of us left mourn their passing.
Others as it were are still going through the ashes trying to find what is left of what they knew.
While others are wandering around aimlessly, having accepted what has happened, but, not sure what to do next.
For as with the bush fires we have all “in some way been altered by the memories.”
So where is our hope, the hope that rests in the God who can bring life out of death and create something out of nothing.
In Australia, we of all people know that after catastrophic events the land renews itself – new life returns. The landscape under goes resurrection. Floods and rain comes to the drought lands and the grass suddenly begins to grow, flowers appear, animals and insects return and the birds come in flocks from hundreds of miles away. – The desert indeed blooms.
Also after the fires we know that our landscape is built to regenerate – the pines of Europe will die but the Eucalyptus trees of this land in a few weeks will begin to sprout epicormic shoots, up the trunks and along the bare branches looking like bearded trees. The Banksia Cones will have released their seed and after the rains new plants will begin to appear and cover the ground. In fact, this only happens if there is a fire. The grass tress long dormant will put up their flower spikes and bloom in spring and so the landscape is slowly restored.
Last week we had our Ash Wednesday Service and many of us were very moved in that service and it was almost as if the current of the liturgy had drawn us along, as I had experienced on the Sunday, to a new place – a place of hope. And for me as I lifted my eyes from the ashes only then did I begin to see the signs that God had brought into our midst – quietly and without fanfare but signs of new life – only then did I realise that the epicormic shoots were already visible in our community, for I had been so caught in the ashes, so grieving for what had been and will never be, that I had not noticed the evidence of the God who says “Behold I am making all things new”.
Mark Galli writes of liturgy “ that as profound a reality as the surrounding culture is, there is an even more profound reality waiting to be discovered. The liturgy gently and calmly gets us to open our eyes to the new reality, showing us the “necessary separation” from the old. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we find our gaze directed away from ourselves and towards God and the kingdom. When we return to our homes, we are never the same.”
My redirected gaze began to see – to see – The epicormic shoot of Gary and Jan wanting to come into membership
The epicormic shoot of Bernadette, of Maggie, of Simon, of Micheal, of Luke. And of Maggie, Simon and Luke wanting to join the Catechumenate.
We are not what we were but we are what we are becoming – as with the folk in Coventry – let us gather the broken fragments of the old and from them form a new ministry
It is some times hard to hope but this is what we need and what the risen Christ offers. So as we journey this Lent
Let us journey in hope, knowing our God can truly bring life out of death and create something new out of nothing.
Let us hold on to hope, when it seems utterly hopeless.
Let us lift our eyes from the ashes and see the new thing that God is doing and has already begun.
Let us search the landscape for the signs of new life and follow where the winds of the spirit take us.
As a sign of this new beginning I have set a Candle in the prayer circle and I will light it as a sign – a sign of hope
– a sigh of one light shining in the darkness
– a sign of hope that from one light others also be lit
You may like to light your own candle of hope and also take a Banksia Cone as a sign that already the seed is released and waiting in the ground, already the shoots begin to appear.
For Hope is the melody of the future – Faith dances to it today
Let today be our dancing day