Last Sunday, November 15, 2015, I preached the following sermon at my church. It was my fourth sermon and one that I am immensely grateful to have preached. I am sharing it here in the hopes that even one person who wasn’t able to be present in the sanctuary that day may find some hope in these words. We live in difficult times, but they we must remember that we need not be without the possibility of joy, of hope, and of love. (For reference, the two lessons read from the lectionary that day were 1 Sam 1:4-20 and Mark 13:1-8):
My first semester of seminary, I had a professor who reminded us frequently that God meets us where we are. I have always genuinely believed that. God meets us in the depths of our despair and the heights of our joy. God is present with us here, as we gather together in this place of worship, and as we labor alone in our work. Writer Anne Lamott put this a funny way when she said, “ ‘Help’ is a prayer that is always answered. It does not matter how you pray—with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago, I wrote an essay that began, ‘Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.’”
And because God meets us where we are, we know that God is with us even amidst the worst that happens in the world around us—in our communities and across the globe. It was devastating to listen to the news reports about the destruction and violence in Paris, a city I visited while we were stationed in Germany, my favorite of all the cities I have ever visited. I prayed for the people of France and for all those affected by the violence, but my words felt insufficient.
Then I read about the horrors occurring in Lebanon and Iraq and the worries Japan faces over the earthquake and tsunami warning and I was nearly overcome. SO much destruction. So much grief. So many lost and many more left feeling without hope.
I thought about the Gospel message for this week, about Jesus sitting with his disciples who were so concerned with the coming devastation of the temple that they couldn’t see beyond it. They seemed only to consider the immediacy of the things that were to come in that day and age, unwilling to hear the rest of Christ’s message that these things were but the beginning and they were ONLY birth pangs, not the sum total and end result. God’s grace in and through the world and our continuing participation in that work brings about restoration after such horrors as the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD and the violent attacks around the world Friday. I’ll admit that this passage from Mark 13 is uncomfortable for me to speak on because I do not care to dwell on destruction, death, or apocalyptic messages. I have had lupus for nearly 19 years and have worked really hard to keep my focus on the joy of life and move past my suffering. I prefer to speak of God’s love and restorative grace, and focus on modeling Christ’s greatest commands. Yet Jesus did address these things. They are included in our scriptures, so we must deal with them.
God calls us to live our abiding faith in all our moments—those that are joyous and those that cause us grief. I see that abiding faith in the way this congregation gathers each Sunday. We are literally small in number but have such a profound belief and commitment to the love of Christ that we show up week after week in service to God and humanity. And it isn’t just here at Faith UCC. People of abiding faith are able to find ways of moving through darkness to light, from alienation to community, from guilt to pardon, from slavery to freedom, and from fear to assurance. With our abiding faith, we find our way to salvation through God’s grace. We demonstrate that faith through ritual and prayer, but we don’t only bring our prayers of petition to God, we bring our prayers of gratitude and joy for what God is doing in this world around and through us. And when we praise God in our joys and in our sorrows, we are practicing what Bruce Birch calls “the giving back of grace.”
Whenever we are authentic and genuine in our prayers to God, whenever we are faithful and trusting, God hears and, in some way, responds to our prayer. And so now, as we think back to our passage from 1 Samuel, we see that Hannah innately knows this. She enters the temple, and in her confidence strides right past Eli the priest to bring her prayers directly to God. In those days, this was a bold act—do circumvent the priest and speak directly to God, especially for a woman, but it is her abiding faith that almost requires that she do that. The prayer Hannah utters is raw in its emotion and desperate in its cry to Heaven to answer the deepest longing of her soul. Not just to satisfy some cultural expectation that a woman should bear children, but also because Hannah confidently believes that her trust in the Lord will bear fruit. Even Eli, who first assumes she’s drunk and making a spectacle of herself, eventually sees that she is genuinely pouring out her soul before God—at that moment, he seems confident that this woman’s prayer will be heard.
And it is, isn’t it? Hannah leaves the holy place and goes forward not to letting her depression overtake her. The scriptures say that when she returns to her husband, “her countenance,” which had been so consumed with distress over the matter of children, “is sad no longer.” In time, she conceives of Samuel, raises and weans him, and then takes him to be in the service of God. She doesn’t know that when she fulfills her vow and gives up her most auspicious blessing that grace will return to her, but it does. This once barren woman has five more children and her firstborn goes on to usher the people out of the violent age of the judges and into the age of kings—one of which, we believe, is an ancestor of Jesus Christ, himself.
In Hannah’s story, we witness that long-running thread that weaves its way through Scripture: that idea that God seeks out the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s curious, isn’t it, that Hannah’s faith was audacious enough to believe that the God of all creation might have any interest in the hopes and prayers of a lowly, barren woman. How moving that in all her brokenness, she takes her abiding faith, that loving, confident faith and walks it right up to God and says, “Here God, here is the deepest longing of my heart. And if you grant me this blessing through your grace, I will return it to you.” And God answers that prayer, trusting in Hannah, too, that this outsider, this “little one” will be true to her word. It is not from political power or some form of earthly strength that the monarchy is ushered in. Instead, it is born of humility and the audacity of hope, faith, and connection with God. How wonderful it is to know that humility is not just part of an oft-quoted verse in Micah and something to be bragged about, but an actual means through which we might bear witness to the beautiful things God brings into our world. And how magnificent that we witness the fullness of God’s love even and especially through the broken, the poor, and the most desperate souls among us.
And so, when we think of “the least of these,” suffering in the aftermath of Friday’s devastation, let us remember Hannah and all those God will work through for good. Too often in this world, and especially in the Christian subculture, the focus turns toward apocalyptic messages. It seems like every time there is a disaster, natural or man-made, self-appointed prophets will prophesy the coming of “last days” and the end of the world. I’m reminded of a particularly prescient line from one of my favorite shows, Angel, where after a painful experience a character new to the world called Illyria says, “We cling to what is gone. Is there anything in this life but grief?” And the usually somewhat morose Wesley replies, “There’s love. There’s hope – for some. There’s hope that you’ll find something worthy. That your life will lead you to some joy. That after everything, you can still be surprised.”
We can get so consumed by the destruction, death, and disease, that we forget that even in the midst of those horrors is God and the certainty of God’s blessing. I look around now at my social media newsfeed and listen to the conversations around me, and I’m surprised by the blessings that abide even still. I see it in the Parisians who flooded the streets just hours after the horrific attacks crying out in their grief, their determination, and in their defiance, lighting candles and raising a sign that said “NOT AFRAID.”
Why do bad things happen? I’d like to have an answer for you. I’d like to tell you that some philosophical or theological explanation has somehow satisfactorily answered the question of suffering and pain for me. But the truth is that I haven’t found one. I just don’t know. But maybe the whys aren’t as important as what we DO in the aftermath. And I don’t mean going out and exacting some retributive justice—we are not called to do that. We are called to love and pray for our neighbors and for our enemies. What I mean is that when we see people suffering and in pain, perhaps more important than the WHYS are the WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOUs. And WHERE DO WE GO FROM HEREs. When we meet people in their lowest moments, the whys don’t matter. But we make a difference in how we approach others and how we help them in their times of sorrow and grief. Not with answers, but with care. Not with platitudes, but with love. By meeting basic needs or by sitting with them in silence.
When I was growing up, I watched a lot of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Now my kids watch Daniel Tiger, a cartoon spin-off of the beloved classic from my early youth. My favorite quote from Fred Rogers is this, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” And that is what we are called to do now.
When we are tempted to let the horrors of this world overwhelm us and deny us the joy of each and every day, we need to rebel. We grieve, but even in our grief, we know that our eyes cannot be trained on the devastation and the ones who destroy, but rather on the one who brings us such blessings. There will not be a time in this age where things will be without the possibility of falling apart, but we are called to continue moving forward, striving each day to do our faithful work, to pray our faithful prayers, and to love with the faithful certainty that God is with us, God is among us, God is within us all. So let us move forward into this uncertain week in the world, let us continue to boldly proclaim the love of Christ, let us praise God even in our grief, returning grace for grace. Let us be the helpers. Amen.
Grace and peace.