Monday, November 16, 2009

Radical Reliance

Sermon for 11.15.09

1 Samuel 1.4-20; 1 Samuel 2.1-8; Psalm 113; Hebrews 10.11-25.

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Call to Worship: “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.”

A number of years ago when I was teaching at Columbia College in New York City, one of my students was arrested and had to appear in court. He had no family nearby and asked if I would go with him for moral support. He was basically a good young man and had been assessing what he had done; he was also very apprehensive. I knew nothing about the judge, but the moment my student stood up in front of him, he snapped: “Take that gum out of your mouth and show some respect.” My student replied, “I mean to show respect for the court, your honor, but it’s my tongue, you see. I’m frightened.”

I remembered this incident when I read the story of Hannah this week. Seeking the security and comfort of the temple, Hannah fled there to weep out her grief to God. Since prayers were usually said out loud, when Eli saw only her lips moving, he dismissed her as a worthless drunken woman. To his credit, he accepts her explanation and gives her a blessing. This is the same Eli to whom she will later entrust her young son. But how often do we misunderstand the depths of someone’s pain or the way they are reacting to it? Such a poignant detail in Hannah’s story makes her hard to forget. Her story is too important to miss.

Like Ruth and Naomi last week, Hannah has been defined, limited, and devalued by her culture. It’s true that she has a generous husband who loves her despite the fact that she cannot bear children, but she is tormented by his other wife and she lives in shame. We can feel the “bitterness of soul” that prevents her from eating her share of the meat that her husband has sacrificed.

Many of us may remember leaving a room quickly to hide embarrassment, grief, or anger. We may recall making extravagant promises if only God will fix things: “I’ll never leave my project for the last minute,” “I’ll never lose my temper again.” Such is Hannah’s promise. Although men usually took nazirite vows only for a limited period of time, she will dedicate the son she needs to the Lord “until the day of his death.”

But in her deep trouble, she also enters deep prayer. She pours out her very soul to God, not caring about her appearance. It is this commitment to prayer, I believe, rather than Eli’s rather perfunctory blessing that allows her to return to Elkanah, her husband, to eat and drink with him, and be sad no longer. She has done all she can; she has put her life totally into God’s hands.

And God hears her! A baby is born! We all love babies and new life. But things get complicated again very quickly for this baby happens to be Samuel, a tremendously significant figure who lived in troubled times and who, with severe misgivings, anoints the first king of Israel. Since this account, this Scripture, is sacred history, the struggles of Hannah and then Samuel must be important to us too. They also remind us that nothing in this life is static and that all things must grow and change. Through that growth and change we are, like Hannah and Samuel, totally dependant on God’s grace.

This total dependence—a reality that it is often convenient to push to one side—brings us to the dialogue from the 13th chapter of Mark and the need for God’s grace on a more cosmic scale. To the innocence of the disciples’ opening line, “Look, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus replies—coolly, emphatically, gently, we don’t know—“Not one stone will be left here upon another.” As you probably know, Mark was written either right before or after the destruction of the temple, the temple Jesus knew during his life. Certainly by the end of the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, that temple was demolished for ever.

Think of our modern parallels: Who would have thought the twin towers would crumble or that a tsunami would leap across great portions of the Pacific Rim or that New Orleans and her people would be submerged or that someone would go amuck at Fort Hood. Innocently, we long for what is secure: the baby in our arms, a civilization, a culture and an earth that are predictable and safe. It is not always so and our sense of innocence is cruelly taken away.

Mark’s 13th chapter can be read in many ways, but Jesus and his disciples are only a few days away from the Passover and his time with them is getting short. When the disciples ask him when the temple will come crashing down, he doesn’t answer directly. Instead he urges them not to let anyone—themselves included—lead them astray. We too can become so focused on analyzing the signs of the times that we forget that something even greater is taking place. Jesus calls it the start of birth pangs. He may well be referring to God’s final judgment and to his own second coming. We must understand that behind such thinking is the conviction, central to Judaism of this time, that God controls not only individual lives but all of history and that the evil of the world is so great that only God can save it by establishing a new creation.

Such assertions may overwhelm us, frighten us, even though we are troubled by what we see around us. It is more comfortable to ask God to fix smaller things, like us, bit by bit. And there is nothing wrong with that. What we shouldn’t lose, however, is the bigger picture and the chance to see how Salvation is challenge as well as hope. Salvation brings the birth of a new age, and Salvation is not a static event for any of us. It is a Grace-driven process—a birthing—of repentance, forgiveness, and regeneration. It is manifest in individuals and in a dedicated faith community. And so we start by lamenting what we see around us just as we lament what we detect in our own hearts. One of my teachers from Divinity School puts it to us squarely: Our witness is to “move from darkness to light, from alienation to divine community, from guilt to pardon, from slavery to freedom, from the fear of hostile powers to [the] liberty and assurance” [of children of God] (Emilie M. Townes). This is the work of faith, and through faith, by God’s grace, we are saved. And we need to be.

This was also Hannah’s work. Although she did not know Christ, her connection to God is inspiring, almost mystical. She knew how to give herself totally, not with formal petition or with traditional sacrifice. The abandon with which she opens her heart speaks to her certainly of being heard.

Hannah’s story is too important to miss because it can also be our story. We are not always as grief-stricken as Hannah, but remembering her surrender, her humility, and her conviction that God is close by, we too can come to God in our awkwardness, our fear, our brokenness. In doing so, we move through and beyond isolation, insufficiency, and worry, beyond appearances, to the newness of life that is Christ’s gift to us.

Let us pray: Dear God: The pillars of the earth are Yours, and on them You have set the world! Your blessings are beyond our comprehension and often we cannot fathom them. But You are still God and still our God, ever near. Even in our moments of disappointment and pain, may we remember Your power and remember to magnify Your name. And in all that we do, open our hearts to the great gift of Your son, Jesus Christ, our companion in the way and our Savior. Amen.

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