Today’s Collect, or opening prayer, is one of my favorites. “Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life …”
Besides the sheer poetry of the prayer, it’s an important reminder that ALL Scripture has something to offer us. We can all point to texts that we would like to ignore, just as we can find texts that support our own inclinations, but Episcopal doctrine holds that we believe all Scripture to be the Word of God, so we don’t get to disregard any of it. We may fight with it, but we can’t ignore it.
We hear four distinct Bible passages every Sunday. Sometimes they harmonize and sometimes they clash: with such a wealth of Scripture I wouldn’t be surprised if each one of us left the worship service with a different word, phrase, or impression in our heart. In fact why don’t you right now, while the memory of the readings is fresh, make a note of something that stuck with you from those four passages, just so you can mark, learn, and inwardly digest it later. Write it down or tell your neighbor.
Our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning go together, although they convey very different messages. First, we hear the intimate story of a woman who hasn’t been able to have a baby, who is bullied by her rival, who gets no sympathy from her insecure husband, who comes before God in desperation to pray for comfort and relief. Even in prayer she is scolded by the priest who really fails at pastoral care 101, mistaking her distress for drunken babbling. But God hears her prayer and grants her request, and in due time she keeps her commitment, her pledge to God, and gives up the precious child to a lifetime in God’s service. The boy Samuel ultimately grows up to be a great leader of Israel. It’s a story that touches our hearts with its humanity and pain, like so many of the family sagas in Scripture.
Each of us will connect with this story in our own way. As you enter God’s temple this morning, what are you seeking? What do you long for? Where are you incomplete? This story can give you hope that God will fill you up and give you new life.
What about our corporate connection with Hannah’s story? What do we long for in the church? What is the new life that we need? Where are we barren, and feeling taunted by our evangelical or unchurched siblings? Where do we feel empty and inadequate?
What is waiting to be born in the church?
Our second reading, in the place of the Psalm, comes a few verses later in the same book, just after Hannah has delivered her little boy to the Temple. Imagine that: seeing the child you have longed for and prayed for take the hand of the old priest and trot off into the temple, to begin a life that you will never share. And what is Hannah’s reaction to this profound loss, this sacrifice that must have broken her heart? She sings, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.”
The tone of Hannah’s song is not what you’d expect from a mother who has just given up her child. She is triumphant. She is defiant. She is strong. She is revolutionary. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. This is no song of mourning: it is a war cry. This second reading gives us a very different perspective than the first. Maybe it reminds you of Mary’s Song in Luke, the Magnificat that we say or sing at Evening Prayer every day. Here is a theme of scripture that rouses us to action, that reminds us of God’s power to turn the world upside down and calls us to arms in defense of the oppressed and needy. Hannah’s song is a manifesto for the reign of God and the destruction of God’s enemies, a charter for social justice. As we join in the song we can trust that God’s power is at work, even when our world is filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and struggle.
The letter to the Hebrews takes us into different territory again, meditating on the ancient rituals of blood sacrifice and the role of Jesus as the ultimate high priest. It invites us to remember that we have been washed and forgiven, that we are a community that seeks to do good, but it ends with an ominous tone: “Encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The Day (capital D). What day is that? The day when Christ will return in glory to claim the cosmic victory.
But before that day comes, there will be trials and tribulations, and we hear a little about those in the Gospel reading. This is the beginning of a chapter of Mark’s Gospel that is known as the Little Apocalypse (the big Apocalypse is the book of Revelation, revelation being a translation of the Greek word Apocalupsis). That word, Apocalypse, has been much in the news this week, in the coverage of the devastating wildfires in our state. We’ve come to think of an apocalypse as an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic, even world-ending scale, because the Book of Revelation describes exactly that. With the destruction of thousands of homes, the deaths of scores of people and untold numbers of animals, it’s no wonder the wildfires are described as apocalyptic: it does seem like the end of the world for many families and communities.
But there is an important dimension to apocalyptic events that is easily overlooked, and Jesus hints at this in his conversation with the disciples. He speaks of false prophets, wars, earthquakes and famines, of the end that is still to come; and then he says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” The birth pangs. Huh. Somehow we have come full circle in these four readings, and we are back with Hannah at the scene of her joy, of new life achieved after pain and suffering.
You see, apocalyptic times don’t last for ever. There are disasters. There are wildfires and mass shootings and floods. There will be racism and homophobia and sexual assault. There will be pain and loss. Tower and temple fall to dust. The world as we know it might even cease to be. But there will always be a new thing ahead. There will always be a birth. And for people of faith, the promise of the new thing will be what keeps us going. Maybe the new thing will be a new way to share God’s love with our neighbors. Maybe it will be a cause to rally round. Maybe our next bishop will revive the church and grow the diocese. Maybe governments around the world will come together to end extreme poverty and reverse climate change. Maybe the #Metoo movement will bring about the end of toxic patriarchy.
Like the disciples, we want to know when and what the end times will be and what comes next. That’s why apocalyptic literature fascinates us, because it claims to have the formula, it claims to be the revelation that answers all our questions. But only God has the formula. Only God knows what the church will look like for future generations. Only God knows how human beings will overcome the challenges set by our abuse of this planet. And in the meantime we are to be content with trusting that, like Hannah, we will know the healing balm of God’s love in response to our faithfulness,
And so today we will bring our pledges to the altar, making our individual promises to God and demonstrating our trust that in uncertain and even apocalyptic times, we can count on God’s power to triumph and bring something new and wonderful to birth.
November 18, 2018
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges