Acting in hope

When there seem to be no other options, God still acts.  God starts small with the end result far into the future.  God calls Abraham and Sarah and, together, they seek a new future for the world.

Full Text: 

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 15:1-6 – Acting in hope

 

            In the beginning, we learn – in Genesis 1 – that human beings are created in the image of God.  Unlike all other creatures, every human being is a representative of God on earth and so bears the dignity and authority of the Creator.  And every human being is called to use this authority in making life possible and plentiful on earth.

            We learn as well – in Genesis 2 – that, like all other creatures, human beings are created out of the ground.  We are inherently connected to the earth and all life on it.  Human beings are called to be servants of the earth to guard it and protect it. 

            Further, we learn that we are connected to each other. It is not good to be alone, God declares, so God has created us for each other.  We are social, sexual beings.  And those connections give us a joy like no other on earth.

 

            With those connections come limits – boundaries that guard and protect our relationships with God, with the earth and with each other.  “You can eat any fruit of any tree in the garden – except this one,” God says.  Yet we are of such a nature that we inevitably reach for what we can’t have.  And that causes problems.  It unleashes consequences we cannot see. 

            Despite this, God is merciful.  The man and the woman must leave the garden and bear the pains of life, but they do not die and they do not live without God’s protection.

            Yet, after the man and the woman leave the garden, reaching for what is not ours does not stop.  In Genesis 4, when two brothers offer their gifts to God, one is accepted and one is not.  Life is not fair.  When we judge that life is not fair, it is the beginning of trouble.  Cain became angry.  Anger turned to resentment.  Resentment reached for what did not belong to it – the life of Abel. 

            God showed mercy also to Cain.  Cain was forced to wander on the earth as a fugitive.  But God also placed a protective mark on Cain’s forehead, so that he would not be killed indiscriminately. 

            Despite God’s continuing mercy, things went from bad to worse.  In Genesis 6, we are told, one day God said, “This was a mistake.  Human beings are capable of more violence than I imagined.  I will blot them along with all creatures from the face of the earth.”  Out of mercy, though, God decided to save one man and his family.  God unleashed a terrible flood that covered the earth and wiped out all life, except for Noah and his family and all the creatures on the boat.

            After it was over, God said, “I’m never going to do this again.  There was so much destruction.  And it didn’t really help.  It didn’t change one human heart.”

            So, it continued.  In Genesis 11, we are told, when all the people of the earth lived in one place and spoke one language, they said, “Let us build a tower to the heavens.  This will make our lives secure and will establish our names forever!”

            But God said, “This is not what I had in mind either.”  So God struck down the tower and scattered the people and gave them different languages. 

 

            You’d think by now God would be ready to give up.  God had tried simple teaching in the garden, destruction by flood, and confusion of tongues.  Then God started to think counter-intuitively.  God had tried to straighten things out by working with the big picture.  Nothing God had tried with the whole earth had worked.  Maybe it was time to go small.  Maybe it was time to try something that didn’t seem to have a snowball’s chance of working. 

            So God chose one old man and his wife.  In Genesis 12, God said, “Abram, I want you to go to a land I am going to give you.  I will make a great nation out of you and your wife.  And through you and your family, all the families of the world will be blessed.”

And Abram went.  God brought him to the land of Canaan at the oak of Moreh.  And God said, “This is it!  This is the land I’m going to give you and your descendants!”

            There was only one problem – there were already people there.  The Canaanites, as you might expect, lived in the land of Canaan, and they didn’t seem ready to pack their bags and leave.

            And there was another problem – Abram and Sarai didn’t have many descendants.  They didn’t even have one descendant.  They had no children at all.  Abram was 75.  That ship had sailed a long time ago. 

            Even Abram has his doubts.  We tend to hold up Abraham (as God renames him) as a pillar of faith, a model of righteous trust in God.  Abram says to God, “This promise you made me is really nice, but I gotta be honest – it doesn’t seem to me like it’s ever gonna happen.  If I die today, my slave, Eliezer of Damascus, will get everything.”

            So, God pulls Abram out of the tent.  God says, “Look up in the sky.  How many stars can you count?  That’s how many descendants I’m going to give you.”

            Finally, in Genesis 18, when Abraham (now renamed) is 99 years old and encamped at the oaks of Mamre, three strangers show up and declare that within the next year, Sarah will give birth to a son.  She laughs.  So, when to her surprise, a son is born, she names him, Isaac, meaning, “laughter.”

            A son is great, especially when you’re as old as Abraham and Sarah.  But it’s still a far cry from descendants as many as the stars in the sky.   When they died, the Canaanites still lived in the land of Canaan.  So the only land Abraham and Sarah had was enough land to be buried in.  Still, they trusted God.  Still, they followed God.  Still, they lived in hope.

 

            So, what’s going on here?  Why on earth did Abraham believe God?  And why on earth did God choose Abraham?  Why did this seem like a good plan?

            Maybe it wasn’t a good plan, but they acted anyway.  Maybe there was no hope, but still they tried.  They didn’t start big; they started small.  They had an intention and they acted on it, even trhough they never saw the final result.

            In Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone describe active hope in this way:

            Active Hope is a practice.  Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than something we have…Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless.  The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide. (p. 3, authors italics)

 

            This is what Abraham did.  This is what God did.  And this is what we can do.  No matter what the problem is, no matter how insurmountable it seems, no matter what the chances of success, we can act in hope.  Maybe it’s global climate change or religious understanding.  Maybe it’s child pornography or violence in the schools.  Maybe it’s simply the raising of our children so that they might not only be blessed, but that they might be a blessing.  We can act in hope.

            How do we do it?  First, we practice gratitude, like I talked about last week.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  It’s easy to see everything we don’t have.  It’s easy to feel limited by what we can’t do.  By practicing gratitude, we live from abundance.  We are reminded of everything we do have, all of the gifts we have been given.  That gives us strength for the journey.

            Second, we can recognize the barriers – the stories we are telling ourselves.  “I’m only one person.”  “The problem is too big and complex.”  “I don’t really have the right skills.”  “It won’t make a difference anyway.”  Recognize them and acknowledge them.  When we recognize what’s holding us back, those things don’t have such a power over us.  And they may teach us something we need to work on – to hook up with other people who share a similar concern, to study the problem so we can act more wisely, to learn a new skill or go ahead and act learning as we go. 

            Third, we choose one thing we can do – no matter how small – one thing we can do in the next year, the next month, the next week, that will be a step in the right direction.  It may seem very small, but that’s how we start.

            That’s how we start because that’s how God started.  From our perspective it appears as though the call the Abraham was a very big step.  But at the time, it seemed inconsequential and unlikely to make any difference at all.  But as small as it was, God took that step.  Abraham took that step.  And we can, too.

            No matter what our situation, or what our prospects, we can take the step of acting in hope.