Weekly Preaching: November 18, 2018

November 13th, 2018

It's an interesting Sunday, with Thanksgiving four days later and Christ the King falling afterward this year. It's hard not to select 1 Samuel 1:4-20, which explicates what giving thanks to God is all about. Hebrews 10:11-25, which I’ll touch on briefly, does remind us again of why we give thanks, not for things or “blessings” but for the infinitely precious work of Christ — and then how we love each other. Mark 13:1-8 is more of a segue into the kingship of Christ sequence we are approaching, not to mention how Jesus speaks of what his mother underwent: the pangs of childbirth.

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So, Hannah. You feel for Elkanah, doubling his sacrifices for her and pleading romantically with her: “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” No answer is provided. Sometimes we don’t get the anguish of the other person, even a spouse.

And there’s more psychological insight here. Peninnah’s taunting... isn’t it the case that our agony, our lack, is inevitably made so much worse because we compare ourselves to others, are unflatteringly compared, or are even pitied? The worst plague of social media is you see everyone else seemingly having a blast while you’re hurting. We have to ask how we (by posting on social media, or by bland talk about being blessed) inflict this comparative pain on others.

Three months after writing this blog, I found myself at a Memorial Service at my rabbi friend's synagogue: Kristallnacht, that night of horrors 80 years ago that ignited the Holocaust. Survivors, who live near me, entered the room to the playing of the "Schindler's List" theme. So moving. I cried, and I don't generally cry at such things.

This got me to thinking about how we treasure gifts perhaps only in light of intense loss; we love only against the foil of so much hate; we are tender in the web of so much harshness. Hannah treasures her gift because she has been without the gift for so very long.

Again, to Peninnah's taunting. Months after the blog was written, I witnessed 2018 election results and noted evangelical Christians giving Jesus a bad name by judging others. Peninnah has hers and then taunts, judges, and shuts out Hannah, who doesn't have anything at all. A Facebook friend, someone I don't really know, posted a harsh item about Muslim women being elected to Congress, and she titled her repost "Disgusting." She then posted a pro-Trump diatribe about immigrants not deserving the goods America has to offer. But her previous post was a cutesy one about Grace being getting what we don't deserve from God. It occurred to me she wants what she doesn't deserve from God (although I bet she believes she's very much deserving), but then others shouldn't get theirs. I will preach on this thought.
There is a theological quandary in the writer’s assertion that “the Lord had closed her womb.” The preacher may or may not engage the question, but it’s well worth pondering even in the background. Ask an infertility doctor why a woman hasn’t conceived, and she can explain to you facts about sperm counts, fallopian tubes and more. Did God so arrange such things to frustrate couples? Or do we see, again, the lovely faith of Bible people whose lives and realities were so hinged to God that they could not imagine anything apart from God? Is it not that God blocks the pregnancy (which God should do a bunch of other times when God seemingly doesn’t…), but that she just hadn’t gotten pregnant?
The text reminds us that Hannah’s hollow exasperation went on “year by year.” She wept — a lot. Finally, Eli saw her praying and thought her to be drunk (anticipating the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:15). This is true prayer: total weakness, vulnerability, inability, desperation, nowhere else to turn. We need not wait for dire straits to get there, either. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said “I only pray when I am in trouble. The problem is, I am in trouble all the time.”
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Realizing her deep prayerfulness, he blessed her. The plot smoothes itself out quickly, and she becomes pregnant. In my book, Weak Enough to Lead, I wrote this about what happens next:

“What staggers us is that she kept an outlandish promise she had made in her desperation. Trying to coax God into giving her a child, she pledged to give that child right back to God. She could easily have reneged on the deal once she cradled her precious son in her arms, nursing him and giggling with glee over his arrival. He was all she’d ever wanted. And in those days, a son was your social security, the one a woman needed to care for her in old age.

But she took the boy to Shiloh and left him there to serve in the temple as an apprentice to Eli. What more poignant words are there in all of scripture than these? “She left him there for the Lord” (1 Sam 1:28). The world says grab the gifts you can, hang on to them, accumulate strength and resources. But Hannah, instead of clinging tightly, opened her hands and let go of the best gift ever. She chose to return to her weak, vulnerable state. “She left him there for the Lord.”

After his election, Pope Francis handed back the powers of the papacy he’d just won by riding in a Ford Focus instead of the papal limousine, by moving into a guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace, and by wearing a simple cassock instead of regal finery. Henri Nouwen left a faculty position at Harvard to live in a L’Arche community in Canada, where his job was to care for a single, severely handicapped young man named Adam. Maybe the most effective pastor I’ve ever known declined multiple promotions, quietly mentored dozens of young clergy, and, in her parishes, happily beamed offstage as her laity excelled as they never had before.

Maybe you know such an obscure person you can describe in your sermon. There’s a little textual confusion in 1 Samuel 1, I think. Were her child named Saul, her pun would be perfect: she asked (sha’al) for a child, and got what she asked for (sha’ul). Hmm. Also, if you studied lament Psalms in seminary, you’ll recall this is the parade example of what happens when the Psalm shifts from lament to confidence: the idea that a priest hears your prayer, blesses you, and then there's a shift to hope. Be sure to notice that the week’s Psalter isn’t a Psalm but Hannah’s song (anticipating Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:49-56) in 1 Sam. 1:1-10!

In keeping with all this, as it’s Thanksgiving, I will use this lovely quote from Wendell Berry’s novel about a Kentucky farm mother (named Hannah, too!), Hannah Coulter, who muses,

"The chance you had in life is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be someone else. What you must do is this: Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks. I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”

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Hebrews 10:11-25 reiterates (again) themes of Christ’s once-for-all work, and our freedom to enter the sanctuary. The opened curtain here is Jesus’ pierced flesh. Most interestingly, in verse 24 we read (in the RSV) “Let us consider how to provoke (Greek = κατανοῶμεν) one another to love and good deeds." With so much provoking to anger out there,what if we used or provoking skills to prod others to love and good deeds?

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I love the opening of Mark 13:1-8. If you’ve seen the tumbled over (and some still in places) massive stones from Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, you can imagine the awed, gawking disciples exclaiming, “What large stones and what large buildings!” I like to describe the details of the massive, beautiful stones (like that one ashlar you can inspect on the Western Wall Tunnel tour that is 40 feet long and weighs 600 tons). This is crucial, as Jesus forecasts they will not remain standing one upon another. The crowd must have laughed their heads off, and yet, 40 years later, the temple was rubble.

Preachers have to be careful not to sound anti-Semitic or supersessionist. Three centuries later, when Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they intentionally left the temple mount in ruins so they could point and boast that Judaism was toast. We grieve the temple's destruction, and we hear the point Jesus makes that the high and mighty wind up devastated.

Jesus, more pointedly in John’s Gospel and Hebrews, theologizes that he, not any building, is the true temple, the connection between God and life down here. For Mark 13, Jesus moodily ponders a harsh, daunting future. When I hear any prognosticator of the end times pointing to current history and saying “Wars and rumors of wars” are upon us, I have to ask How many times in history have there been “wars and rumors of wars”? 

Were I preaching on Mark 13, I’d focus on the image of “birthpangs.” Birth, as Dr. Mark Sloan points out (in his wonderful Birth Day), is the only time pain is regarded as good, and we debate whether it should be alleviated or not. Pain is the necessary prelude to new life. On our end, yes. On God’s side, surely. The pangs of bearing with the constant insanity of human history strikes agony into God’s heart.

I also think of the lovely narrative Henri Nouwen shared with us (in Our Greatest Gift) about fraternal twins in their mother’s womb. The sister is trying to convince her brother of the existence of a mother and a life beyond the womb. She eventually asks, 

"'Don't you feel these squeezes every once in a while? They're quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful.' 'Yes,' he answered. 'What's special about that?' 'Well,' the sister said, 'I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our mother face-to-face. Don't you think that's exciting?'"

"What can we say November 18? 26th after Pentecost" orginally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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