Last week, we learnt that the season of Lent is a season when we are invited into stories that evidence waiting and yearning. These are stories that contain conflicting mixtures of excitement and fear, success and failure, loyalty and betrayal, affirmation and denial, and life and death.
This week we have these conflicting emotions evident, not only in the set bible passages but also in the story that Dr Julianne Stewart brings us this week from her work when she was the International Programs Director for the Anglican Board of Mission (ABM).
Dr Stewart’s material has been written around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and our story this week relates to the goal of ‘Zero hunger’ – to ‘end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’. It may seem to be an ambitious goal - even an impossible goal; but we are encouraged to follow the example of faith and trust in God that Abram demonstrated in the story from Genesis 15 that we have heard today.
Yes, on our own we will become overwhelmed with the enormity of this goal and would find it hard to visualise any progress towards the achievement of ‘zero hunger’; but through the work of ABM and trusting in God, you and I can make a difference.
Dr Stewart’s story today encourages us in this. It is a story of success where a very real hope for the future is expressed. It commences with a letter from a man called Alphonse.
Alphonse is a community leader in Kenya’s Makeuni County, a semi-arid zone about half a day’s journey from the capital, Nairobi. He describes the fruits of several years of very hard work with one of ABM’s partners, Anglican Development Services Eastern (a part of the Anglican Church of Kenya.)
“Before you came, many families went without food, because we experience unpredictable rain patterns. We had inadequate support for our crop production, and we didn’t have training in what were ideal crops for this area. When you arrived, we were able to identify our key challenges. And we were able to identify drought resistant crops. You provided us with a seed bank. Unfortunately, the rains failed us at that time. But then you provided us with a second lot of seeds, and we have had good rains. We are sure we will now become sustainable.
You have also provided us with training. You showed us how to harvest run-off water through our farm ponds. We have constructed six ponds already. And we are using these ponds to train others. The farm ponds come with drip irrigation kits, so we can engage in vegetable production – cabbages, tomatoes. This has created employment. People can now buy vegetables locally. People can afford school fees. People can buy better clothes.”
Dr Stewart then goes on to say:
What Alphonse describes is a miracle-like transformation, from hunger to enough food, and from subsistence living to having a little left over to pay for vital things like school fees.
This (she says) is the sort of change that is possible when we embrace the call of Isaiah 58. (You may remember from last week that Isaiah wrote,
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?)
Dr Stewart continues:
The staff of the Anglican Development Service inspire me with their unselfish pursuit of the gospel of Christ in the service of their neighbour. For many years they were led by a particularly visionary bishop who preached to his priests and congregations at any opportunity about the need to plant trees to encourage restoration of the land and reduce soil erosion, and the need to restrict family size.
This bishop believed that priests should model Christ and that Christ would be the first to care for the land, and to ensure the viability of families by keeping them to a size which the land could support.
Alphonse’s words also show a strong sense of reciprocity. The church gave the community training, new seeds and different ways of looking at the age-old problem of scarce and unpredictable rain, but it was the community who put those ideas into practice; building the farm ponds, digging, planting, watering, harvesting and selling. They are not sitting back waiting for the church to do these things for them.
They are aware of the fact that the only people who can really help the community in any sustainable way is the community itself. By applying the knowledge learnt and making the most of the assistance provided by the church, the community will ensure they don’t suffer again from hunger and malnutrition.
I have witnessed retired school-teachers using their skills to lead community organisations. I have witnessed elderly women carrying rocks to build sand dams and digging to lay water pipes. I have witnessed the joy in people’s faces as they see a positive result for all the work they have put in.
(Dr Stewart continues) It seems to me that people like Alphonse are demonstrating a similar faith to that of Abraham, as described by the passage from Genesis 15. Abram did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead …No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but 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.
(And she concludes) I see in Alphonse a faith that God will deliver on God’s promises, and a willingness to work with God and not to give up.
So, let us look a little more closely at the Genesis 15 passage (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18). It is a passage that asks the question, “How can you step forward in the dark toward God’s seemingly impossible promises for the future?”
The passage commences by describing when the word of God came to Abram in a vision. We are told that the Lord came to Abram when he was weary from war, quite elderly, childless, when his world was shrinking along with his hope, when his body was tired, and his mind would not let him rest in peace. Maybe some of us can relate to that stage in life.
God encouraged Abram, “fear not, I am your king who cares for you”, and then made a covenant with Abram – a covenant of promises that Abram would have a son to be his heir and that his descendants would be as many as the stars in the night sky. This is the covenant of promise to which I referred two weeks ago. It was a covenant that asked only that Abram and his descendants would continue to put their faith and trust in God.
To Abram, God’s promises seemed utterly impossible. He was an old man, his wife was well past child-bearing age, so the idea that he would have a son and heir and numerous descendants seemed ludicrous. Nevertheless, after he had got over his initial incredulity, Abram ‘believed the Lord’.
This is the faith that lies at the heart of the gospel message of salvation by faith. The Genesis verse goes on to say that because Abram had this faith in God, ‘… the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15:6). Writing in Romans 4:12, Paul encourages us all to ‘… follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had’ in order to ‘… have righteousness reckoned to them’ – in other words, to receive salvation.
As we examine Abram’s life, we see that it was when he trusted most that he was strong, and when he stopped trusting that he was weak. There is a good lesson here for those of us who may be feeling weary, sad, and desolate.
Maybe the current world situation and realities cause you to question the possibility of a peaceful and sustainable planet and world order. Perhaps you feel like Abram who initially thought that God’s promises were utterly impossible. But just as God was faithful to his promises to Abram and brought the promises to fruition once Abram put his trust in God, so you and I can trust that through ABM, we can take a small step toward a future that seems impossible.
And on the Sixth Sunday in Lent, i.e. the 14th April, you and I will have the first of three opportunities to do this when we take up a special offering for the work of ABM. I have already encouraged you to put a little money away each week through Lent (in addition to your normal offering) as part of your Lenten Discipline. The ABM appeal for Lent is especially to support St John’s Anglican Seminary in Zambia.