Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized

Living Like God is Real

1 Samuel 2:1-10

Who has ever asked God for something? Who has ever prayed for something to happen or for God to reveal the meaning of something? Well, then, in a way, we are just like Hannah.

Before we talk about the famous song of Hannah in our scripture today, we are going to need to look at the context, the surrounding details of Hannah’s life. Hannah was used to asking God for help. We all have our own individual reasons for asking God for help or assurance, whether it’s because of illness, disappointment, natural disasters, trouble at work, or a whole host of other reasons. And in fact, many passages in Scripture urge us to cry out to God in our times of need.

Here are Hannah’s reasons for calling upon God repeatedly:

  1. Hannah is shamed in her house and in her community because she is barren. In ancient times, a woman’s worth was directly linked to her ability to produce offspring. The Bible says that Elkanah was a righteous man, always worshipping the Lord of hosts, and he loved Hannah, always giving her a double portion of the sacrifice at the temple (better than roses or chocolate?) to show his love. But, Elkanah took a second wife, probably because Hannah was not producing children. 1st Samuel 1:6 says “her rival (meaning her co-wife, the second wife Peninnah) used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her [Hannah’s] womb.”
  2. Hannah’s husband can’t seem to figure out how to offer support and care: in 1st Samuel 1:8 Elkanah asks her, supposedly rhetorically (according to him): “Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Thanks, Elkanah, very helpful. If we put ourselves in Hannah’s place, how would we feel about this gesture of so-called “comfort”? He is asking her why she is crying when he should know full well the shame that is brought upon women in that time who don’t fulfill their prescribed duties to their house by having children. He should know what’s wrong! Where is pastoral care when you need some?!
  3. Hannah goes to the house of the Lord, the tent of meeting at Shiloh, and she prays so fervently and so rapturously that the priest, Eli, thinks she is drunk! It was not the custom at that time to pray silently, so when “her lips moved but her voice was not heard,” Eli was concerned that she’d been sampling the wine a little too much. But Hannah replies in verse 15: “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” This reminds me of those times that I know we have all had, when we are lost for words or when our tears dry up because we are so tired of asking God to help us, asking others to believe us, reminding ourselves to keep going in whatever struggles might be facing us at the time.

 

But what I find really intriguing about Hannah, is that she kept asking God for a son. Hannah encourages us to be ourselves, to worship God so intensely and so intimately that people think we are intoxicated–and intoxicated we might be with the desire for deliverance from our troubles. Hannah lives in the middle of a dysfunctional family, where empathy is hard to come by, but Hannah knows who she is as a person and who she is to God--she never pauses to say, “God doesn’t think I’m important enough to answer my prayer”–no, she persists in prayer and she actually makes a deal with God, though perhaps inadvisable and potentially leading to disappointment, it is a natural thing to want to do! Through it all, Hannah was persistent and believed that God would be present with her and answer her prayers. Unlike Moses, who struggled with self-doubt and questioned himself, almost letting himself be turned back from his divine calling at the site of the burning bush, Hannah persists. We can imagine that she, too, must have been burdened by self-doubt and wanted to give up at many points along the way. All sorts of discouraging things happened in her life (infertility in the face of desiring a child; an insensitive partner; a rivalry within the household; religious authorities belittling her without understanding her life context) and, through it all, all the times she could have turned back or given up, she kept believing in God’s presence with her. Now, my point is not that we have to pray until we get what we want, because I don’t think that’s the way prayer does, and should, work. Prayer is a way of connecting with God, it’s not a hotline to getting all of our dreams fulfilled. What I see in Hannah is not that she always believed God was going to give her what she wanted, but that God was going to be active.

In short, Hannah lived like God was real. That might sound like an odd or funny thing to say–yes, most likely, if you’re joining me here today, we believe God is real and present and active in our lives–but believing something and living it out every day are different things. I encourage you to think about the times in your life where you counted only on yourself to

What does it mean to live like God is real? I first heard this turn of phrase from a community organizer out in California, Alexia Salvatierra who works to encourage Christians to shape their organizing around the “implications of the truth that God is real and Jesus is risen.” This phrase caught me off guard for a couple reasons: first, I know God is real! Right? In my heart, I have a conviction that there is a greater spirit of love and justice at work in this world, and whom I feel I can connect with. Second, as someone who studies religion academically, I sometimes find that it is a lot easier to think about God instead of pray or focus on being present with God.

How do we live everyday knowing that God is real? The take-aways of this idea are these: 1. to not rely on ourselves to do everything; 2. to not give up b/c it’s taking a long time. 3. to sustain the sure hope that God is present with you in your time of distress.

Hannah’s song shows us what living like God was real meant for her.

  1. She praised God for the things God had done in her life already. Hannah says, “The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.” Though Hannah did go on to have six children, the number seven here represents a number of wholeness and holiness. By saying this, Hannah recognizes that God was with her and heard her fervent prayers over and over again–through all of the nights when she hoped against hope to have a child, through all the tauntings of the women in her household and in her community, and through Elkanah’s insensitivity. God is present with Hannah in a personal way.
  2. Hannah also praised God’s actions in the wider culture. Hannah is singing a song of national thanksgiving, which is appropriate when we contextualize this reading history and see that it was written after the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. This exile was painful and confusing to the people of Israel, who wondered about their community identity and how they were to continue their traditions in a foreign land. Out of this context arises many psalms that raise questions of identity–people asking: who are we if we can’t live in our homeland and worship our god? In Hannah’s song, we see communal vindication as she refers to the multiple ways that the people of Israel will be liberated. She says, “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”

 

What is remarkable about Hannah’s song is that she knows God is with the oppressed and hurting in multiple ways–not only is God walking with her through her personal trials, but God is also present with Israel through their community trials of exile and identity crisis. God is not just one Supreme Being up high in the sky, but God is personal, God is near and God is involved in the day to day workings of the world. Hannah’s faith existed on multiple levels, both personal and community-wide, because God exists on multiple levels.

I am drawn to Hannah’s song today because it is not only a praise for the God who opened her womb, but a song of revolution: her personal salvation is intimately linked to salvation for the people of God. Rev. Karla Suomala writes on her blog: I wonder if Hannah’s suffering is not perhaps more complicated, more profound than the surface of the story suggests.  She is enmeshed in an unjust system that seems at every turn to be working against her desire for a better, more abundant life…Her only recourse, her only option within this system, is to return to the God who closed her womb in the first place… Is the author of this text aware of the acute injustice of a woman’s circumstances at that time?  Is he giving voice through Hannah to the deep, systemic injustice that has caused untold suffering for women throughout history?…As scholars have aptly noted, this just doesn’t sound like the simple prayer of thanks we might expect from a new mother.  This is a song of revolution where the bows of the mighty are broken and the poor are raised from the dust.  Hannah’s song penetrates the surface, pointing to the pillars of injustice that must be pulled down.  Some of those pillars may be the very ones that put her in such a desperate situation in the first place.”

In the last few weeks before Advent, we should also notice that Hannah’s song is also a precursor for Mary’s Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke. Mary, like Hannah, is a woman who existed on the margins–in Hannah’s situation, she was barren and could not give her husband a child, which would have been a cause of great shame in Biblical times; in Mary’s case she was a virgin, living in Galilee under occupation by the Roman Empire, without much political power, whose destiny was determined by the men in her life. Similar to Hannah, Mary says, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…he has brought the down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

This practice of living like God is real is perhaps especially poignant today, as the world is reeling from the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and Kenya, among many other places. Violence is scary, and hard for many of us who have the privilege to live relatively safe and sheltered lives in the USA to understand. I admit that I have no frame of reference to gunshots or explosions on city streets or wars being fought overhead and in my backyard. I admit that as a white educated Christian Westerner in the USA my body, my family and my hometown has never been under attack because of these identities, and yet I am complicit in so much violence because of the privilege that comes with these identities. Many are quick to condemn whole religions over the hateful acts of a handful of dangerous, radicalized people. We MUST NOT be so quick to paint each other with such a broad brush. We MUST NOT only see the violence in Paris, but also that in Kenya, in Beirut, in Syria and Iraq and the countless other places that have also experienced incredible destruction and grief in the past 24 hours. We MUST see the violence done in Nashville, in Tennessee, in the USA just as much as we see that done overseas (Mizzou, Yale, Charleston, St. Louis, New York, Cleveland, and so many other places). We MUST NOT value the grief of some over the grief of others. We MUST NOT value the lives of some over the lives of others. May the God who we know through Hannah’s song be with us in this time of sorrow, as individuals and families mourn the loss of their loved ones, and as the world again questions what we know about terrorism and about religious fundamentalism of all stripes.

As we are getting ready for Advent, for the time of Mary’s waiting to come to fullness, for the birth of Christ entering the world, let us think about these things: How can we live like God is real? Let us focus on how to see the people on the margins, the place where God is at work outside of mainstream culture. Let us remind ourselves and remind each other that God is at work in the world, that God does hear our prayers and is present with us through our time of need. Thanks be to God.

(This sermon was originally preached at Central Christian Church in Springfield, Tennessee on November 15, 2015)

Posted in Sermons

No Longer Strangers

(This sermon originally preached July 26, 2015 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN)

Ephesians 2:11-22

11 So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. 12 At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God. 13 But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. 15 He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. 16 He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.

17 When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. 18 We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. 19 So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. 20 As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. 22 Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.

Hear the good news: Christ is our peace. We are no longer strangers.

A couple of weeks ago, several Glendalers joined with folks from all over the world in a gathering of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The text for today was the basis for the theme, “No Longer Strangers: Crossing Borders for Peace.”

For those of you who have never been to Peace Camp, here’s a picture of what goes on in that mystical place with those hippie Baptists-for-peace; for those of you who have been to Peace Camp, here’s a reminder of why we gather there:

At Peace Camp, we met new friends from places like New York City; Richmond, Virginia; and Phoenix, Arizona…but we also met folks from Cuba; Puerto Rico; Chiapas, Mexico; Haiti; Sri Lanka and Sudan. In a seminarian’s discussion group I joined this year, I heard about the faith of mujerista theologians in Puerto Rico–women who are studying Scripture and theology with significant attention to their social location as Latina women. I heard about the struggles of a small seminary in Chiapas, Mexico, raising money to replace their old truck that struggles to get across the hills to sell bread to local churches in order to support their eco-theology farm. I learned what surprises our Sri Lankan brother Jude was facing as he studies at Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, MA–not only was he learning about American food culture (I had the joy of witnessing him meet a grapefruit for the first time!) but he also shared with me some amazing interpretations of parables from a south-Asian context. At the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (better known as “AWAB,”) annual prom on that Thursday night, people dressed how they wanted, danced with whomever they pleased and shared in the celebration that is imperative to sustaining the work of justice and peacemaking. We were crossing borders for peace.

All week, we considered how we cross borders in our own spiritual lives; in our day-to-day encounters; within our families who may or may not understand us or have different political or religious views than ours; in our schools and workplaces and seminaries; in our home churches and around the world.

In this letter to the Ephesians, the author (whom I will call Paul despite the fact that this letter is not a verified Pauline letter, but more likely one written by a disciple of Paul’s), encourages budding Christian communities who are learning about unity in Christ, and how it is lived in a broken world.

In our passage today, Paul directly addresses those who have been “far off,” those who were “strangers” to the covenant and promise of God, those who had no hope and no god. In one sense, Paul is speaking about the Gentiles, the non-Jews. Because most of us modern day Christians do not share in the lineage of Israel genetically, the text speaks directly to us. In another, more metaphorical sense, Paul is speaking to all of us in this world who have felt God’s distance and experienced being cast out or written off by some group in power.

Karen Chakoian, writing on this lectionary passage in Feasting on the Word, says: “By using the loaded word atheos [in reference to “you who were once far off”, meaning those without God], the author evokes the strong emotional separation of Jews and Gentiles. This was not merely side-by-side coexistence, but active antagonism and hostility. To remove the dividing walls was no small feat…to make these hostile groups one is nothing short of miraculous. What had been separate for generations–indeed, for the whole of covenant history–was now being made into one body.”

This sounds familiar to those of us brought up in the United States of America, where slavery and genocide are the original sins of this nation, and where now much of society is absorbed in discussing race and the #blacklivesmatter movement is picking up momentum. Now, we are in the thick of the work of truly becoming one body and one household.

Speaking directly to us, those who have been far off, Paul informs us that we are no longer strangers. We have come near to the presence of God in each other, across time and geography and language barriers, and Jesus has come with us. We, who have before been excluded, are fellow citizens with folks who speak different languages, whose skin is a different shade of human than ours, who eat foods we’ve never heard of and whose communities of faith might look different from ours; we have been embraced into the community of Christ, into the household of God.

Simply put, we are family. You and you and you and me–we are no longer strangers, to God or to each other. Reconciliation is the new way–folks who had been separated are now together, and in communion with God. Tell me that’s not some real Good News!

But what do we do now, knowing we are no longer strangers? It can’t be all sunshine and daisies, being part of the household of God and experiencing the unity of Creation instead of the division and hatred. In the term “reconciliation,” there is also a call to action.

At the same time as we begin the hard work of reconciliation (the deep listening and analyzing our privilege and empathizing with folks on the margins), let us be wary of calling for reconciliation too soon. Oftentimes reconciliation is the “safe word” we use to talk about the time when people will stop disagreeing with us and will be assimilated into our modes and ideas, when there is no longer something uncomfortable to us. The call to reconciliation is a call to make ourselves uncomfortable. Because since we are no longer strangers, we don’t have any excuse to keep treating others as strangers.

Paul writes, “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.”

Jesus, with his body, broke down barriers that divided us. Whether you think about his body washing his disciples’ feet, his body hanging on a tree used as an instrument of torture, his body eating and praying and crying and healing–Jesus, with his body, went up against the man-made Law in order to observe the higher Law of loving his neighbor to make peace between groups that not only disliked each other, but had oppressive power dynamics.

Jesus, with his body, made us no longer strangers. Jesus, with his body, brought us all into the family of God. And we are called to do likewise.

At Peace Camp, we were humbled to have among us Rev. Osagyefu Sekou, a prophetic preacher who is a part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and a native of St. Louis, speak about reconciliation and the immediacy of incarnational Christianity in today’s United States American society, where race has repeatedly (and necessarily) been at the forefront of public discourse.

In response to Paul’s words illustrating Jesus’ body breaking down barriers, Rev. Sekou implores us to always consider this question: “When they shoot a black baby in the street, where is your body?”

We need an incarnational Christianity, we need to think about our bodies because Jesus thought about our bodies. Why else would he have healed on the Sabbath, disobeying religious law? Why else would he have healed the woman with the flow of blood or the lepers or the blind, all of whom had been outcasts in their community?

We need to think about bodies because Jesus had a body–one that was labeled so “dangerous” and “disruptive” by the State that it caused him to be killed by capital punishment.

We need to think about bodies because each and every day, someone with a non-white body; or a non-heterosexual body; or a gender non-conforming body is being similarly labeled “dangerous” and “disruptive” and is murdered at the hands of the State.

Paul writes, “…you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Just as Jesus chose to cast his lot among strangers, God chooses to be present with us–we are a bunch of people with different experiences, with different ways of loving, choosing to be in community with each other. And God chooses to be among us, not in this physical building of Glendale Baptist Church, but in the ekklesia, the gathered congregation, dwelling among flawed people who aren’t always the best allies, who aren’t always the best lovers or teachers or parents or truth-tellers. God aligns God’s self with humanity…and that is our calling too. To align ourselves with our family in Christ– no matter if we have even met them or not–we align ourselves with all our cards out on the table, messy and dirty–and blessed.

We are all family. And when it is our family on the line, we stand up in a different way than if harm is being done to one who is not related, though hopefully we’d stand up for them too. So when we turn on the television or pick up the newspaper or log on to CNN.com in the morning and hear about yet another child of God struck down violently by any number of institutions, we need to treat these situations, the Charleston and Mike Brown and Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice situations, as if these people are members of our family, because they are.

            Because we are no longer strangers, because we have been outcasts and we have now been brought into the promise of God’s family and household–because we have crossed the border of the internalized white supremacy that most of us in this room carry without knowing–because we know in our hearts that there must be another way to be the family of God besides only showing up when there are funerals to attend–that’s why we need to think about where our bodies are.

Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In turn, he welcomes us. Likewise, the presence of God-with-us already has empowered and equipped us to engage in reconciliation work in the world and manifest peace in what may seem to be hopeless situations. We must choose to dwell with The Stranger, so that they too will be brought into this household, the place where the Spirit of Love and Light dwells with us.

Incarnational Christianity is part of this–being the ‘household” or “family” of God or “body of Christ”, the unity of the body paints a picture of the members of the body protecting each other. We belong to each other. If one is without wholeness, all are incomplete; when one body is abused for generations upon generations, what do the rest of the members do? Knowing what it is to be an outcast, they reach out and embrace those in pain and pray for each other and work for each other’s full inclusion in the household of God.

That is what reconciliation can be. But how do we practice reconciliation?

The Baptist Peace Fellowship/Bautistas por la Paz is in the process of becoming a truly multilingual organization. At Peace Camp, I’d become fed up with my monolingual self, and decided that I would start gaining some more tools to be a peacemaker–I would learn Spanish! As I was talking with my new friend Josue, nervously pronouncing some new Spanish words I’d learned from my iPhone app, Josue looked me right in the eyes and said: “You must not be afraid of doing it wrong.”

And something clicked. In many situations, our hearts are in the right place and we plan and serve our world with grace–but really, much of the time we are actually self-deprecating and shut ourselves down because we are afraid that we won’t be the perfect ally, that we will embarrass ourselves or be too vulnerable or lose control. Well, guess what? Sometimes we will do it wrong. Sometimes we will talk too much and be arrogant and shut other people down and listen only for what we want to hear…but we can’t let our fear of failing stop us from stepping up and standing up for justice for our siblings in Creation. That’s the real work of reconciliation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “We are called to be allies of God in the work of justice and reconciliation.” This work is already in motion, the uniting of the people of God and of all creation is in motion–that’s the struggle, the revolution, the speaking out, the cause for disruption—God’s justice is rolling like water in the mountains, in Baltimore and in Charleston and Detroit and Cleveland and Texas…and in Nashville…can you hear it? It’s already on its way. Will you be caught up and become an ally with God? The only way any of us will flourish is if we all do.

Our joy in darkness, our striving towards justice, our hope for peace–all of these are bound up together.

In the words of James Taylor,

“Let us turn our thoughts today

To Martin Luther King

And recognize that there are ties between us,

All men and women living on the Earth.

Ties of hope and love,

Sister and brotherhood,

That we are bound together

In our desire to see the world

Become a place in which our children

Can grow free and strong.

We are bound together by the task

That stands before us

And the road that lies ahead.

We are bound and we are bound.”

Hear the good news: You are no longer strangers. They are no longer strangers. We are no longer strangers.

In the haunting words of author Arundhati Roy:

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”