Proper 28B: Yearning

Longing for GodOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Samuel 1: 4-20

To read the Old Testament passage

The household of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Penninah does not look promising at first. It looks instead like a figure for all Israel: Elkanah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but the household is marked by internal conflict. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. The LORD has “closed her womb.” For this Penninah “provoke[s] her severely,” year after year. Like Israel, the household is torn by rivalry. And like Israel, its future – at least through Hannah – is in doubt.

In this crisis, Hannah models a faithful response. She weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD”.  Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow. She prays for God to see her. And she prays for God to remember her – as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a Nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.

Hannah’s prayer is heard by Eli, the aging priest who embodies whatever is left of the virtues of the old order. He rebukes her, thinking she is drunk – if Eli is not corrupt, like his sons, he still cannot quite recognize the new thing that is already emerging in Hannah’s prayer. But Hannah answers him sharply, “No, my lord…” . No! And Eli hears her. He can still recognize Hannah’s faith. He blesses her and adds his endorsement to her prayer. Hannah departs as if her prayer were already answered. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” – in God’s time – she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel.  Samuel would end the time of the judges and usher in the monarchy.  God was doing a new thing in Israel.  Hannah’s name, which means “grace”, is fitting for someone who would essentially birth the beginning of the monarchy with a bold act of faith.

Now the notion of infertility is not new in the Bible—think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, even, later, Elizabeth.  But barrenness was a source of shame.  And it was always thought to be the fault of the woman.  So, taunted and rejected, Hannah enters a long line of women who suffered because of this.  And, on top of it, Hannah was part of an unjust system that didn’t even acknowledge her pain. But rather than folding into it, she stood up and prayed. Her tears and her songs point to this injustice.  It becomes a song of revolution.  The mighty will fall and the poor will be raised.  Over and over we are told that God “opens wombs”, birthing new life.  But perhaps the story is not merely about God answering prayers but rather the story of one who yearned for God.  Maybe her yearning, her way of “returning grace” to God, was the answer to the prayer itself.  Our deepest longings themselves often reflect this “upside-down” kingdom that God envisions.  And in those longings, God will open wombs and new life will come to be.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does “returning grace” look like in your life?
  3. What does prayer mean for you in your life?
  4. What would it mean for us to yearn for something better?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 11-14 (15-18) 19-25

To read the passage from Hebrews

An intimate and frank relationship with God, openness with one another, and bold public witness that perseveres in the face of opposition – these are the characteristics of the confident community portrayed in today’s Scripture reading. The text invites us to a frankness of speech that deals confidently with the barriers of guilt and shame that often divide communities, and with the barriers of timidity and fear that hinder our public witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Such boldness and confidence is grounded in what Christ has done, dealing with the condemning power of sin once-for-all, and what Christ will do, establishing justice on the earth. The word, parresia, (“confidence”), means being free to speak one’s mind, not being ashamed. It means boldness, courage, fearlessness, and joy. It is those things that belong to freedom. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise that boldness. But in the society of God, we are free to have confidence and to be assured of God’s presence with us.

Even if we do find its elaborate imagery of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice somewhat strange, we can affirm what it clearly intends: God’s Presence is enough. And even if we cannot join with the argument that such once and for all-ness came only with Jesus and was not present earlier, we can affirm that this is the truth which we celebrate in Jesus: his life poured out in compassion for others was indeed the pouring out of God’s life, the life we recognize as being active  wherever people are attuned to it – in the church, in ancient Israel, in many and various ways throughout the world and throughout history where God has been before and beyond us.

In some ways, the Letter to the Hebrews is a treatise on organized religion. But it is not that religion of rules and memberships and those who are in and those who are out. It tells us how to be a community—a loving, encouraging community in the name of Jesus Christ. 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said “the spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.” The writing does not tell us how to be religious; it doesn’t teach us how to be spiritual; it talks of how to live within the Spirit of God, within that “upside-down” Kingdom. It teaches us how to be the worshipping Kingdom of God together. It teaches us how to experience God’s Presence, speak in boldness, and encourage each other.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What would a church that encourages each other look like?
  3. What does it mean to you to live within the Spirit of God?
  4. What does this boldness in Christ mean?

GOSPEL: Mark 13: 1-8

To read the Gospel passage

The disciples were apparently in awe of the temple.  It was magnificent in structure.  Supposedly it covered an area five football fields long and three football fields wide and was covered in white marble and gold, to put it in perspective.  There is debate as to whether the Gospel according to Mark was written before the destruction of this great temple or just after.  Regardless, it was a time of great political crisis and out of this apocalyptic literature began to flourish.

And Jesus is warning the disciples to hold their course, to be faithful, even in the face of suffering, even in the face of the cross.  It is a reminder to be aware of what it is and who it is in which you put your trust.  On what are you building your faith?  What cost of discipleship are you willing to bear?

Elie Wiesel in his book Memoirs: All Rivers Lead to the Sea talks about his childhood in Eastern Europe and the suffering of the Jews even before the Nazis came. His rabbi used to say, “Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, was a better Jew than you. He was a thousand times better than all of us, but the Midrash tells us that he was cast into a burning furnace. So how do you expect to breeze through life without a scratch? Daniel was wiser than you and more pious, yet he was condemned to die in a lion’s den. And you dream of living your life without suffering?”

Here, Jesus was not merely proclaiming destruction. He was prodding those listening to him to change the script, to change that which gets their attention, that which gets their loyalty. He was reminding them to live their life but to yearn for something more. He was pushing them to look beyond what they saw, beyond the stones, beyond the buildings, beyond the beautiful paraments and the other articles of worship, beyond what people are wearing or where they were schooled or what they do for a living.  None of that makes sense in God’s vision.  It is meaningless.  God’s vision is about us, all of us together.  Jesus was telling them that “everything will be alright”, not in a trite, sappy sense where he pats his followers on the head and then walks away, but with a promise of something better just up ahead.

Like any apocalyptic writing, it is trying to make sense of that which really doesn’t make sense.  It is trying to bring comfort to people who are suffering and scared.  It should not be read as a way of “figuring out” when the world will end, or Jesus will return, or whatever you believe will mark the next phase of existence.  It is, rather, about hope, about learning to live, as Hannah did, with that yearning for the new life that God holds.  “Apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”, for seeing.  Jesus was trying to open the door to a vision of what could be.  And, when you think about it, if these are the “birthpangs”, then the journey has only just begun.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How do you think most people would read this in today’s world?
  3. What does the image of the “birthpangs” mean for you as it relates to this Scripture?
  4. What vision are we called to see that we are perhaps missing?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Countless writings underlie the urgency for our modern world, with all its bustle and noise, of rediscovering the value of meditation, of silence of prayer, of devotion.  I preached it before I practiced it.  If one is to help the world towards its rediscovery, one must practice it oneself.  The religious life must be fed.  We devote years to studying a trade or profession.  Ought we show less perseverance in acquiring the presence of God? (Paul Tournier)

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me? (Albert Schweitzer)

 

 

Closing

 

O God, who out of nothing brought everything that is, out of what I am bring more of what I dream but haven’t dared; direct my power and passion to creating life where there is death, to putting flesh of action on bare-boned intentions, to lighting fires against the midnight of indifference, to throwing bridges of care across canyons of loneliness; so I can look on creation, together with you, and, behold, call it very good; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

 

(“Bring More of What I Dream”, from Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Ted Loder, p. 109)

 

 

Proper 18A: The Holiest of Tensions

TensionOLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 12: 1-14

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This reading gives the instructions to the Israelites as they prepared to flee from the Pharaoh and Egypt. It follows and interrupts the narrative about the plagues that came upon Egypt. After Moses’ numerous objections to his calling, he finally returns to Egypt with his brother Aaron. Pharaoh rejects Moses’ pleas for leniency to the Israelites. Throughout this story, there is an underlying question of whether or not the Israelites will return to the worship of the God who gave them life or turn to the powers that be, the way of life to which they have become accustomed in this time of bondage.

The story of the Passover actually begins in the preceding chapter with Yahweh declaring that he will pass through the land and the first born of every house (both human and animal) will die. This is the tenth plague. Only the Israelites will be spared. The description of the festival itself more than likely comes from a later period once the festival was established.

The symbolic acts of eating the lamb, cooked as directed, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs all serve to remind of that event that God initiated, even though it was questionable as to whether they deserved it. The selection of the sacrifice is to be a perfect specimen. Nothing is to be left. The animal is wholly consecrated for a sacred purpose. The whole act of celebrating the Passover is an act of participation. It implies a full participation in what God offers. (We would call is discipleship.)

Most importantly, the Israelites are released from bondage. And this shows that God will go to all lengths to save a people, challenging the powers of earth. The story teaches us the most fundamental truth about God—this is the God who has brought you out of Egypt, whatever that may be. So each Spring from then on, in the first month on the fourteenth day of the month, each household is to set aside a kid (either a lamb or a young goat), butcher it, roast it, and eat it. And the blood of that lamb is to be smeared on the two doorposts and the lintel of the doorway as a sign of God’s saving grace then and now. And all who partake in this remembrance will also participate in the freedom that God offers—from sin, from bondage, from all of those things that hinder one’s relationship with God.

Later in this chapter, the writer of Exodus says, “And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this observance?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses. And the people bowed down and worshiped.” As we are told in our Gospel accounts, it is thought by most people that Jesus was participating in this Passover feast on that last night before his Crucifixion. It was his last supper. It was the way that he focused himself and reoriented himself before God. And each time we take the bread, each time we drink of the common cup, we do the same. We remember the freedom that we as Christians have been shown through Christ—freedom from sin, freedom from bondage, freedom from all of those things that hinder one’s relationship with God. “Do this in remembrance of me… And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this observance?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses. And the people bowed down and worshiped.”

When I was in Israel, our guide told us that there were three “defining moments” in history for the Jewish people, three points at which their identity as people of God was solidified and renewed before God—the first was the Passover, the second was Masada, (look at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/masada.html ) and the third was the Holocaust. They are all looked upon as symbols of freedom and survival (even in the face of death and destruction). They are all symbols of God’s eternal grace and presence. They are all, in essence, accounts of Crucifixion and the freedom to which it led. It is the beginning of a whole new identity in which we participate.

 Can you imagine the logistical nightmare that Moses was handed? He had to tell the entire nation of Israel that they each had to 1) take a perfect year-old lamb, 2) on the 10th of the month, 3) and slaughter it on the 14th of the month at twilight, 4) roast it with bitter herbs, 5) don’t have any leftovers, 6) and eat with sandals and staff, 7) hurriedly. Oh, and by-the-way don’t forget to put some of the lamb’s blood on your doorpost—or the angel of death with snuff you out. I can’t even imagine standing in front of a congregation of 150 people and giving those instructions, and expecting anyone to really take me seriously.

Someone in the church would think they had a better lamb recipe—there’s a great one in the parish cookbook, you know. Someone else always hates to be in a hurry, and prefers to jabber through meals. (We all know who that is…) And, someone would check the calendar on their iPhone and realize that they have a conference call on the 14th at twilight—how’s the 15th work for you?

Low ball estimates for the population of the Israelites, come in around 20-40,000.

That’s a lot of people to get a recipe to. In fact, that’s a lot of lambs being slaughtered at the same time. Why all the attention to detail? Why the logistical nightmare? Because this meal is the beginning point of a whole new identity for this community, the People of God.

“This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.” It’s a whole new beginning, for a people who needed a do-over. These were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—they are the children and inheritors of the Promise of God, the Covenant—and they had been reduced to brick-making-slaves. They needed something to help them begin to break away from everything they knew, and start over. Like a wedding reception. Like a 50th surprise birthday party. Like a baby shower. Only bigger. Life on the other side of the split sea, on the other side of slavery, would be completely different—and they were going to do it together—and with the help of God.

This meal would begin to form them into a new kind of people, almost like a group process exercise on a high ropes course. And, the fact that God would ask them to have this meal over and over again into perpetuity would solidify their new identity.

Until, of course, the People of God needed another do-over. And so on the night before Jesus died, he sat down at table to have this meal once again, and offered his own Body and Blood. (Fr. Rick Morley, “Dinner and a Do-Over”, available at http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/807?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=proper18aot, accessed 30 August, 2011.) 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Why do you think this story is so significant?
  3. What does this story mean for you?
  4. What does the term “liberation” mean for you?
  5. What does Communion mean for you in the context of this passage?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 13: 8-14

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=276688847

This text lifts up the importance of love as the law’s fulfillment. But it sets up love not as an “ought” but because God’s love is about to dawn. Love is the fulfillment of what will be. Paul offers the rule of “love your neighbor as yourself” as the example of God’s righteousness revealed in Christ. Such love would never violate any human law, never do wrong to a neighbor.

His purpose for writing here is probably to avoid anarchy in the Christian community and unnecessary persecution by the Roman government. But Paul also assumes that all who read this share with him the view that history is reaching its climax and coming upon the return of Christ. Essentially, Paul is saying that love is bigger than all the observances and all the commandments.

This is not meant to be some sort of passive, “lie down and take it” type of love. I don’t think Paul would be so overly sentimental (Have you read Paul???) as to compel people to just take what the Roman Empire hands them in love. He’s saying, rather, that you are to be different. God’s justice and God’s Kingdom do not fit with the “rules” of this world. It is different. It is the way we are called to be. And, according to Paul, it is about to dawn. It is time to get ready now, to BE part of that Kingdom even now. It does not mean just putting your head down and paying your taxes and shutting up; it means bringing the Kingdom of God to be. Paul is acknowledging that it is hard to live in the Empire, to live in a place that, if you really become who you should be, is one in which you do not “fit”. But the verb here that the NRSV translates as “put on” is similar to “putting on” clothes, in essence clothing oneself in Christ and looking toward the dawn. (It means that if you really shape yourself to “put on” the clothes of Christ, the “old clothes” will no longer fit!)

We cannot view the word “owe” here in material, “of this world” terms. It is not getting one’s “due” or getting justice in terms of this world and the way we define justice. It is bigger. It means realizing that you are called out to be God’s Kingdom, whether or not that is fair or just or even seemingly possible in this world. We are connected to a deeper and more abiding allegiance, a deeper and more eternal freedom. It is more than just “loving one’s neighbor” the way we think in terms of this world. It means entering that love and journeying toward the dawn together. It means “putting on” a new identity, “putting on” the image of Christ. 

The world is, to a degree at least, the way we imagine it. When we think it to be godless and soulless, it becomes for us precisely that. And we ourselves are then made over into the image of godless and soulless selves. If we want to be made over into the image of God—to become what God created us to be—then we need to purge our souls of materialism and of other worldviews that block us from realizing the life God so eagerly wants us to have…The Powers are inextricably locked into God’s system, whose human face is revealed by Jesus. They are answerable to God. And that means that every subsystem in the world is, in principle, redeemable…The gospel, then, is not a message about the salvation of individuals from the world, but news about a world transfigured, right down to its basic structures. (From The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium, by Walter Wink (1998), p. 8, 33, 36.)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How do you hold this writing against the Passover passage in Exodus?
  3. How does this passage speak to unity?
  4. How does this passage speak to us about the “empire” in which we live?

  

GOSPEL: Matthew 18: 15-20

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The passage that we read begins by telling us how to deal with those who sin against us. Now keep in mind, this is not talking about those who merely disagree. It is giving us a directive for talking to someone who has wronged us—first talk to them alone, then with some others present, and if that doesn’t work, just let it go. Here, the offended person is to take the initiative. Perhaps, it implies, the person doesn’t even realize what they did. You will notice that this is not an act of revenge or “getting even”. There is nothing personal implied here. This is instead a reconciliatory act on behalf of the community. It is an act of holy conversation.

According to the passage, when it is all said and done, all decisions and acts are ratified, all judgments are made by that which is divine. The important thing here is not the winner or the loser of the argument but, rather, the unity and reconciliation of the community. Because it is through community, through the gathering of even two or three, that the presence of Christ, that the heart of God, is found.

The older, albeit “non-inclusive”, translations of this passage began, “If your brother sins against you…” In some way, that is more poignant. It implies someone with whom you have a relationship, a sort of intimacy. It is not just some unnamed person. It is someone that really hurt. If THAT person sins against you, then talk to them. Don’t let it fester. Don’t, under any conditions, let it destroy the relationship. That is what community is about.

But notice that it also doesn’t say that you have to agree with each other. Where did we ever get in our church life or our church tradition that we had to agree? The directive here is calling for a sort of “holy conversation”, a holy tension, if you will. Have you ever made bread? I don’t mean the stuff out of that can that I have to pound on the corner of my front step to open. I mean real yeast bread. Once you get the dough all mixed up, you don’t just pour it into a pan. You have to knead it, digging deep into its very core and turning it this way and that so that it softens and clings together. Then you let it rest. You let it go. Then you do it again and perhaps again, coming up with much softer more supple dough. Once you form the dough into a loaf, you pinch all the ends tightly to create a seal. You know what that does? It creates a tension so that the gas from the yeast expands up and out evenly. Otherwise the dough just lays flat in the pan. It is the tension that allows it to form into what it is supposed to be. It is that holy tension that forms us into community and into what we are supposed to be.

It is not about orthodoxy; it is not about “church law”; it’s not even about the United Methodist Discipline! (Aghast!, you proclaim!) In fact, it’s not even, I would contend, what the Bible “says”. (After all, the Bible according to whom—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Micah, the Prophet Isaiah, those followers and disciples who stuck other’s names on their work, or that old sage we call “oral tradition”.) The point is, the Bible is all of those. It’s a holy conversation filled with holy tension. It’s about relationship. It’s about realizing how God’s vision of us and of this community we call the world engages and understands God’s Presence. And to do that we have to understand it through historical tradition, out and out reason, and our own experience. (Hmmm! Scripture…tradition…reason…experience—someone should write that down!) Most importantly, it’s about our relationship as a community of faith, the community that is indeed clothed in Christ.

 

Matthew 18:15-20 is one of many scripture texts that have been used to harm others. These six verses are not meant to be a declaration of power, nor do these verses mean that if two or three people agree on something, then they can ignore others and do whatever they want. These six verses are about listening and accountability and about a larger vision of God’s kingdom…We must listen to and read texts like these carefully and honor the questions and tensions they raise for us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. That’s why Jesus uses hyperbole: to help the disciples hear the gospel of God’s love indifferent ways, through different experiences, with different language and images. If the Bible is a closed word and merely an answer book, then we’re in trouble. We’ll continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify such harm in God’s name. In this, we will limit God. That’s not an exaggeration.

Jesus could have used his power to tell the disciples exactly what he thought of their question, but he chose to listen, to open up conversation and to teach. The Bible invites us to enter into an ongoing conversation of Christians who struggle with what it means to live faithfully in relationship and to look beyond ourselves. Jesus’ exaggeration in this text goes beyond what the disciples can comprehend and what we can comprehend: it goes beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take the other seriously, listen to the other, and dare trust that he or she belongs in God’s love as much as we do. (From “A Careful Read”, by Deanna Langle, in The Christian Century, August 23, 2005, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3263, accessed 30 August 2011.)

 

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How, then, do we deal with conflict in a community?
  3. What does it mean to call ourselves a “community of faith” or a “community clothed in Christ”?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 Religion is about transcendence, and spirituality is about finding meaning in the mundane. (Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief)

 

I think we’re living in one of the most significant historical moments ever. We are living at a time in which we must recognize both the limits and the opportunities of the modern world view. The modern world view, particularly in the past hundred years or so, has lured the Western mind away from its spirit. Our attention has been diverted away from the inner domains, the realms of true religion and spirituality, to the outer world. The technological world view, a scientifically-based world view, a rational world view has become the dominant ethos of our times. Many people feel that far too often organized religions, particularly in this country, have in fact been a little too seduced by that materialistic force. Many people have felt that in our churches and in our synagogues, we’ve found more talk, more attention paid to the external aspects of life, to the hierarchy of a religion, or to the rules of the outer world, than to the inner experience of religion itself. (Marianne Williamson, in The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World)

 

Christianity is not being destroyed by the confusions and concussions of the time; it is being discovered. (Hugh E. Brown)

 

Closing

 

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

 

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

 

Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sigh and touch and sound in you and you in me?

 

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show. Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me. (“The Summons”, words by John Bell, The Faith We Sing # 2130)