The Adventurous Lectionary – The Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – November 14, 2021
I Samuel 1:4-20, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8
I grew up seeing a refrigerator magnet promising, “prayer changes things,” whenever I opened our family’s refrigerator. That affirmation has stayed with me all my life. I am a pray-er for things large and small. I have studied the research on prayer and health, and believe that in mysterious and incalculable ways, prayer makes a difference. Although prayer is not coercive, nor does it change God’s mind, prayer somehow can be a tipping point between health and illness and success and failure. I don’t see prayer as supernatural, but as an act of faith that activates natural processes aiming at health and wellbeing. We can always hope our prayers contribute to healing even when a cure isn’t possible.
Today’s readings describe answers to prayer as well as future hope and challenge and provide the preacher opportunities to reflect on the interplay of divine creativity and human agency. Do our prayers make any difference to God, and if so, what difference to they make?
In many ways, this week’s readings are challenging because they are distant from our contemporary lived experiences and understanding of pastoral relationships and the nature of things – strange encounters with priests, vying among wives, sacrificial high priests, and cataclysmic events. Yet, when we look more deeply, a more insightful 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? Many people will identify with her struggles. Infertility can be heartbreaking. Despite her husband Elkanah’s great love, Hannah wants something more to feel complete. She is no doubt the subject of gossip as well as the hostility of Elkanah’s other wife. Moreover, she – and others – may believe that she is infertile as a result of God’s punishment for some personal sin. Hannah wants a male heir to complete her life. She receives an answer to her prayers in the birth of Samuel. As we consider Hannah’s story, 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. The story of God’s answers to Hannah’s prayer may be painful to them, as they ponder “Why didn’t God answer our prayers? Where did we go wrong? Why did God abandon us while blessing Hannah?” 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. 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. The prayer successes may be as problematic as the successes in nurturing peoples’ faith.
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. God’s love is universal, but not controlling. God’s response to our deepest desires must conform to the processes of nature.
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 due to Christ’s sacrifice, we can come to God with confidence. We no longer need 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 as part of the 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.
We are in such a time of potential catastrophe. The “signs of the times” are obvious in climate change, growing racism, incivility, anti-science, self-interest, and anti-science. Politicians present their followers with small visions of reality when we need great changes. Congress dithers despite growing poverty and climate change. Is there hope? We need more than prayers, we need action and transformation at the personal and global level.
There is also threat in the passage. Beware of false gospels and fake Christs, even politicians who supplant Jesus in the loyalty of their followers. We can also 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.
Holistic and authentic faith calls us to be mindful, attentive, and advocate for institutional and planetary healing. Our calling is to be God’s companions in healing the earth, promoting the moral and spiritual arcs of history in a time of darkness.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; and 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR GRANDPARENTS WORKING FOR A BETTER WORLD; THE WORK OF CHRISTMAS: THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH HOWARD THURMAN. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.