The Adventurous Lectionary – The Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – November 18, 2015
I Samuel 1:4-20, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8
Today’s readings describe answers to prayer as well as future hope and challenge. In many ways they are challenging because they are distant from our lived experiences – strange encounters with priests, vying among wives, sacrificial high priests, and cataclysmic events. Yet, when we look more deeply, an underlying message emerges. Despite life’s difficulties and threats, God makes a way where there is no way. Spiritual barrenness, infertility, sin, and destruction cannot separate us from God’s love. Though God is not the source of these challenges, God’s persistent providence brings healing and restoration in times of despair.
What are we to make of Hannah’s story? Infertility can be heartbreaking. Despite her husband Elkanah’s great love, Hannah wants something more to feel complete. She wants a male child for her personal fulfillment as well as to feel in synch with the other women of her community, and most especially her rival Peninnah. She makes a vow to God – if you give me a son, I will dedicate him to you. He will become one of your own spiritual leaders. According to the story, God hears her prayer and Hannah becomes pregnant. (See Elizabeth Hagan, “Birthed: Finding Grace through Infertility.”)
There are many avenues into the birth of Samuel. First, we can reflect on the pain of infertility and the ends to which people go to bear a child. No doubt in every congregation there are persons who are – or who have – prayed for a pregnancy and not all of these prayers are answered. Compassion, support, and understanding are called for not shame or judgment.
Second, we can consider what it means to bargain with God. Hannah’s prayer is of the “if-then” variety: she is devoted but her devotion inspires her to barter with God. The barter is about her more than it is about the well-being of her future child. This scripture begs the questions: Are our relationships with God a matter of quid pro quo? Must we give to receive? And, what if we don’t give enough or promise too little? Moreover, does God close and open the womb, or determine other important events of our lives, based on arbitrariness, favoritism, or payment? Or is there free play in the universe, pockets of chaos with which God must contend to bring about the best world? Surely our prayers can make a difference between health and illness and can change our cells as well as our souls. But are they all determining? And, does God answer some but not other prayers? Many may pray for a positive health outcome and promise great things to God, and receive no benefit.
Third, does God have a role in pregnancies and other key personal events? Are those who don’t receive blessings out of favor with God or does God have something better in mind? Or, perhaps, are matters of life and death the result of many factors and not just God’s activity and our prayers? A multifactorial vision of health – and accordingly our prayers – would suggest that our prayers can, but are not always, a tipping point between health and illness and success and failure.
Psalm 16 extols the virtues of taking refuge in God. Those who turn to God will experience joy and wisdom. Opening to God, leaning on God’s vision and wisdom, opens us to greater fulfillment. While the Psalmist may connect openness to God’s way with good material fortune, we recognize that there is a deeper desire of the heart, to experience God in all the seasons of life, both positive and negative.
The passage from Hebrews asserts that as a result of Christ’s sacrifice, we can come to God with confidence. We no longer have to worry about the past or our sins, for God’s grace covers over and transforms our sin into salvation. We are in God’s hands and God wants good things for us. We don’t need to be afraid, but can accept the blessings God has envisioned for us. Confidence in grace inspires us to gather in community and to excel in care for one another. Grace leads to graceful living. Confident in God, we can ask great things of God and great things of ourselves.
Mark’s Gospel describes the cataclysm to come. The earth will be in chaos. Wars will abound and fear will be great. There is a certain kismet suggested in Jesus’ words – the upheaval is the necessary birth pangs of the coming age. There will be destruction but the destruction is a prelude to new creation. “Don’t be afraid,” so says Mark. “God will be at work in the future to bring new life.”
Perhaps this story is as much the adventure of spiritual growth as some apocalyptic prognostication. In the spiritual journey, there can be a shaking of the foundations. We may feel unsettled; our world may turn upside down as a result of some new insight. We may feel at risk; but this experience is part of the divine midwifery. It appears to be an emergency, but it may be an emergence of new energy and creativity. Birth is on the way. In all things, God is working for good, but we have to pass through the birth canal and in the midst of the process, we don’t know what the future will bring. We must trust that God will bring something beautiful out of the crises we are experiencing.
There is also threat in the passage. Beware of false gospels and fake Christs. We can be led astray by teachers and theologies that pervert the gospel message of liberation and grace, undermining it by ideology, nation-first, and political disingenuous dialogue.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, theologian and spiritual guide, and author of over 45 books, including “The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “I Wonder as I Wander: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Madeleine L’Engle,” and “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure.”