Hoping against hope

Lent 2 (March 8, 2009)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps. 22:23-31; Rom. 4:13-25; Mk. 8:31-38

This week we visited with MCC partners and internally displaced families in northern Iraq, where MCC recently shipped blankets, relief kits and school kits. A small delegation of Mennonites from Switzerland and the United States, who had helped assemble the material resources, traveled with us. Photo link

Dana Hassan, REACH director, with Evanna Hess, MCC East Coast staff

We were warmly received in many homes, with situations ranging from difficult to seemingly desperate and hopeless. Many of the families we visited have fled their homes in Baghdad, Dyalah or Mosul – and have little hope of returning. They now live in camps or as “sharecroppers” – tending someone’s land in exchange for a place to live and food to eat.

Matt Hofer, Swiss Mennonite, with Muhammad who has been displaced from central Iraq

There are still some 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq and an additional 2 million refugees living outside the country.

A particularly powerful moment was visiting the Qalawa IDP camp just outside Sulaymaniyah, where 62 Sunni Muslim families from Baghdad and Dyalah now live in tents. MCC’s partner organization REACH is a Kurdish NGO. Kurds were persecuted and killed by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government. And yet, in an example of loving “the enemy,” REACH decided to distribute MCC blankets, relief kits and school kits to these families.

MCC relief kits

We also visited Chaldean Catholics near Erbil, where many Christians have relocated since the 2003 U.S.-led war. Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus operate a kindergarten for some 300 displaced children. St. Peter’s Seminary trains priests who will serve throughout Iraq.

Sisters of the Sacred Heart uses tents to meet needs for kindergarten space

This week’s Common Lectionary readings are about God’s promises and our response to those promises.

In the Old Testament reading, God promises to make a covenant with Abram (Gen. 17:2a) and to make him “exceedingly numerous” (v.2b) and the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (v.4). God also promises to bless Sarai with a son and says she will “give rise to nations” (v.16). God’s promises are in spite of the fact that Abram and Sarai are elderly and childless. The Epistle reading picks up this same promise to Abraham and Sarah (Rom. 4:13-25). In the Gospel reading, Jesus promises that those “who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk. 8:35).

Stunning views from northern Iraq

How are we to believe such seemingly impossible promises when circumstances seem to dictate otherwise? The Lectionary readings suggest that our faith grows as we worship God and take small steps that demonstrate our trust in God.

The psalmist reminds us that worship is about remembering who God is and what God has done (Ps. 22). Even though the psalmist feels at the moment that God has forsaken him (v.1), he praises and stands in awe of God when he remembers that God delivered and saved his ancestors (vv.4-5), kept him safe even as a child (vv.9-10), has previously heard his cries for help (v.24), and that “dominion belongs to the Lord . . . (who) rules over the nations” (v.28.)

So, too, Abraham “hoped against hope” and believed God’s promise (Rom. 4:18). Rather than distrusting and wavering (Rom. 4:20), he “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (v.21). In the Gospel reading, Jesus invites his disciples to demonstrate their faith. He calls them to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). His call is rooted in his own example. He will lay down his life, trusting that God will raise him from the dead (v.31).

Without situations that seem hopeless to us, our faith would never grow. It is precisely in these situations that we are forced to trust in God rather than in ourselves. We were inspired by the examples of hoping against hope that we saw in Iraq this week.

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