Lectionary Reflections for Sunday, November 18, 2012
I Samuel 1:4-20; Psalm 113; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
In his reflections on death in a technological age, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton states that one of the primary images of immortality is biological, the need to leave a mark through our children and their descendants. As a grandparent, I know how important this biological and spiritual legacy is as I play with my “boys” and seek to find ways to promote planetary and personal well-being for them and for the other children of the earth. In today’s Hebraic scripture reading, Hannah was childless and experienced the pain of childlessness in a world in which women were judged and valued by their ability to give birth. This was a relational and spiritual issue: although her husband loved her deeply, she felt incomplete and scorned by Penninah, Elkanah’s other wife and no doubt other women in the community. Desperate, like so many parents before and after, she seeks God’s blessing and the birth of a child. Finally, her prayers are answered, Eli blesses her, and she gives birth to Samuel, whose destiny is to fulfill her vow that he will be a man of faith, dedicated to God’s mission.
For those who reflect on this passage, the first word is caution. Don’t exalt Hannah’s great faith as exceptional! Like a physician, the preacher’s task is “First, do no harm.” No doubt, there may be families in your congregation who are experiencing the pain of childlessness. They may have prayed for children and undergone the rigors of preparing for IVF, and still had no success. Be prepared, if you touch on this subject, to receive a phone call from a couple, husband, or wife, who may pour out their pain to you. Second, this passage contains one sentence that requires comment by the preacher: Hannah fears that Eli will regard her as a “worthless woman.” In thisl context, the full humanity of women and men, the equality before God needs to be asserted. Third, the scripture says that “God closed her womb.” With the recent bad theology that inspired one politician to assert that women who were raped became pregnant as a result of God’s will, the preacher needs to be clear that such theology is unworthy of the God of Jesus Christ.
God brings forth beauty from violence and pain, but God never intends nor permits violence, abuse, rape, incest, or any form of dehumanized behavior. Here the preacher can challenge the popular theology of Rick Warren and others that suggests who God plans or allows every important event of your life, your DNA, your family of origin, your success and abuse, to test and strengthen your faith. (For my response to Richard Mourdock’s comments on rape, see the following post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2012/10/is-a-bad-god-better-than-no-god-at-all/ and my response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, Holy Adventure; 41 Days of Audacious Living, Upper Room Books.) God moves through challenging situations – “in all things, God works for good” – but God’s movements are relational and not coercive, aiming at a future and a hope.
Finally, with all the fuss about biblical marriage among conservative Christians, it needs to be pointed out that Elkanah had two wives! Which images of biblical marriage should we follow – Jesus’ words about divorce, the images of polygamy, or the images of women as voiceless property?
Psalm 113 exalts the Holy One, noting that God is aware of our world and acts to bring fullness of life to people in vulnerable and painful situations. Once again, we need to be aware that some people may wonder why God has not given them a child, based on Psalmist’s affirmation of God providing joyous children to the barren. Sensitivity is always essential in faithful preaching, even when our sermons must agitate the comfortable.
The Hebrews reading once again addresses the issue of atonement and notes the importance of blood sacrifice in our salvation. To most progressives, such theology is off-putting, irrelevant, or harmful. But, before we dismiss the passage entirely, there may be something we can redeem from the text: as a result of God’s love for us, revealed in Jesus the Christ, we can be confident that God is on our side and out of that confidence, we can encourage, support, and care for each other. God’s love inspires a non-competitive and affirmative relationship with our fellow Christians and, beyond that, the whole earth. The admonition is clear: the church is to be a place of encouragement, support, affirmation, and creative challenge.
Mark 13 presents an eschatology in brief, grounded in the interplay of temporality, dishonesty, and catastrophe. Even if we have little use for end-times preaching and forecasts of the Second Coming or the Mayan calendar, Jesus’ words ring true. As the Greeks noted, “all things must pass. The river flows and life is brief.” Our greatest achievements and the institutions we love (church, country) are finite, mortal, and temporary. This can lead to anxiety and acquisitiveness; it can also lead to gratitude and appreciation for this day that God has made. The words of the hymn, cited by Alfred North Whitehead in the final pages of Process and Reality: “Abide with me, Fast falls the eventide” point to other aspects immortality in addition to the biological immortality Hannah sought – the immortality of creativity, memory, and experience. Will our lives make a difference in the long run? Will we be forgotten two generations from now? Will there even be an Earth to remember in a century? Without easing the tension of such questions, we need to ponder whether or not God will remember and treasure our lives and whether or not God will sustain our personalities beyond the grave.
Second, the passage speaks of “false Christs.” Such language is usually the territory of fundamentalist and Pentecostal preachers, who assume to know those who are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and often identify this apostasy with the liberal, moderate, and progressive wings of Christianity. In our quest to describe a god whose love embraces the whole earth and who nurtures revelation in other faith traditions and love across boundaries of sexuality, we are accused of betraying the faith and watering down God’s word to be politically correct. Accordingly, we would do well not to identify any particular person as a “false Christ” simply out of recognition of our limitations in spiritual discernment. But, the passage raises the question: how shall we creatively, robustly, and energetically respond to visions of Christianity, other religions’ behaviors, and public figures whose language and actions radically contrast with our own? We cannot succumb to relativism, and must challenge the voices that call explicitly or implicitly for the destruction of others or the good Earth. We can ask the question: Are there theologies and practices, considered orthodox in some communities or over the air ways, that betray the spirit of the Christ? While I recognize and affirm Christian and non-Christian diversity, I feel compelled to question the theological and behavior values of the Westboro Baptist Church, the prosperity gospel, hate language against LGBT community, the identification of Christianity with lowering taxes and easing environmental laws, and the end-times preaching that turns us away from Earth-care.
Finally, as a result of rapid global communication, we are more than aware of potential catastrophe, whether through human or natural processes. We have lived through 9/11, two wars, and are witnessing increasing belligerence in the Middle East as well as competition among nations. We know we are at risk and that many things are out of our control, but we need to discern what we can, in principle, influence and act on behalf of the Earth and its peoples. Jesus’ recitation is not that of a happy televangelist for whom the “bad news is the good news.” There is a wistfulness and grief in Jesus’ words: he is for life, not destruction. Jesus’ words call us to view the world realistically, but prepare to be agents in shaping the world. The future is open, even to God, and we can make a difference. Jesus’ followers had no political power, so they no doubt saw this passage as a call to wait for God’s final word on history. Nevertheless, they claimed some agency; they preached the good news and revealed by their preaching, teaching, and healing, God’s care for this world and the importance of their actions in light of an unknown future. While opening to divine grace and transformation, and God’s loving power as the source of all good things, we can work out our planet’s and personal wholeness and salvation with awe and excitement.