Monday, November 16, 2009

Birth Pangs and Addictions

Scripture appointed for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; and Mark 13:1-8

I’m noticing a theme of affliction weaving through two of our readings today. Hannah has long been afflicted by what is primitively called a closed womb, her inability to conceive and bear a child. And Jesus speaks of terrible things happening on the world stage, and in the nation, a forecast of global affliction.

Last weekend, I was afflicted. Have you had a case of the flu this season? What kind of flu it was doesn’t seem to matter, does it? However precise the warnings may be about a particular strain, when symptoms hit, you’ve simply got “it” And “it”, more accurately, has you. An alien force, microbially tiny in origin, moves in and takes over. The host body reacts, over-reacts, under-reacts. All systems are not go. Some systems are no-go. Others are go-go. Much that one takes for granted is, for a time, afflicted.

Humbled. That’s a word often on my lips, this past week. By Saturday morning, I could tell I would need a Plan B for Sunday. John Denaro was in town; he could celebrate, I would preach and then retreat to the back bench. By Saturday evening, that began to feel like a reach. Laurie Glover and Jeanne Blake were to make mission presentations: if they came also at 8:00, I could preach just at 10:00? By Sunday morning, I couldn’t have cared who did what, as long as it wasn’t me doing it.

Truly, it wasn’t for me to do. It was for me to be. Be sick. Be in my jammies on a Sunday morning for a full taste of Sabbath rest, thanking God for the freedom to do so, for the relative ease with which, by early morning light, I could recognize that I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to acknowledge that I was powerless, in the face of this affliction, to manage on my own. I had to know and show that I believe that a power greater than my own will carry the day. And I had to make a decision to turn my will over to the care of God as I understand God.

If you recognize those as the first three of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, you will catch my point that for me the humbling I’ve known during this bout of flu has required me to consider how addicted I am to my daily and weekly rounds. Humbling, indeed.

“Do you see these great things that claim our attention, these monuments to permanence, these institutions we take for granted as essential to our status quo? Not one will be left here; all will be thrown down.” With this, Jesus made that disciple wish he’d kept to himself his awestruck comments on architecture.

And with this crashing prediction of systemic change, Jesus does what he does so perfectly well: he pulls us off our addictions, one by one, freeing us to imagine what matters to God, to envision, in the face of changes we cannot control, what God is doing and how God is calling us to be in Christ and to do by Spirit.

As disciples of Jesus Christ we bring to him our impressions of what matters so much to us. We tell him all about the reality we see. And then we are humbled when the Word made flesh causes us to be still and listen, hear, mark, learn, and inwardly get a different take on the deeper reality of who God is and what God is doing.

This is Mark’s Gospel we’re hearing, these days, and for Mark that deeper reality of what God is doing is announced in the very first words Jesus speaks in chapter one. Right in the thick of the troubles, fears, and anxieties that spread through Galilee when King Herod arrested John the Baptist, right then Jesus began to proclaim good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

By the time Mark set those words to parchment, the great temple in Jerusalem had in fact been brought down by imperial forces, the capital city itself in clampdown to defeat the insurgents whose hope to free their homeland would not be realized. The emperor ruled with iron fist. That was reality. The people of God live their lives in the crossfire of clashing cultures and warring nations, not to mention earthquakes, famines, and let’s not forget pandemics.

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Catch what he does there. In the face of horrific forces of destruction, Jesus insists that God is giving birth to a new creation. Jesus will himself in his own body be the testing ground of that truth. He will make for all time and all people a single offering by which he perfects those who receive his gift, writing on our hearts the laws of his Spirit. He makes of us all who claim him petrie dishes growing the culture of his kingdom of justice and peace, mercy and love. He makes of us agents to infect the world with his way.

This continual birthing is the Church’s apostolic business. Openness to the transforming Spirit of God is the apostolic state of readiness for ministry anywhere we go. The Spirit we have received in baptism calls us to be open at all times, in all places, to all people. Nothing can close the door to that Spirit or break the reach of that ministry, not affliction, not death.

Which makes of the closed womb of Hannah a crucial place of encounter. How is the Church to understand her ancient story? Within the historical claims of Israel, hers is one more tale of one more brave woman giving birth to one more patriarchal hero—in this case Samuel, the last of Israel’s pioneer judges who ruled the young nation in its Wild West days, not as settled kings or queens with armies and treasuries, but as circuit-riding prophets armed with only the law of God. According to this patriarchal record, Hannah’s fame lay in her birthing of Samuel, whom she dedicated to God.

But the matriarchal record may give us more Spirit to go by. Consider her in her afflicted state. So early in Israel’s prehistory that a man might still take two women as wives, this story shows Hannah so loved by her husband that he gave her a double portion of everything. But nothing could take away the sting of her rival, Peninnah, who was able to stand in judgment of Hannah and, using a convenient theology of blame, provoke her by announcing loudly in the family compound, “The Lord has closed her womb.”

But Hannah’s story is of her own opening of her whole being to God. We might say she becomes her own champion, storming the gates of heaven and attempting to bargain with God, not hiding her anguish from public view, converting the priest Eli from scorn to empathy. She emerges from her wrestling with God a changed person. In due time she will conceive and bear Samuel, gotten, says her story, by asking him of the Lord. Not just asking: putting everything on the line, utter dedication, full investment—characteristics many of us have marveled at in the stories of women and men today doing what it takes to open the prospect of birth, when the customary way won’t get them there.

Hannah’s story is not just about what it takes on her part. Hers is a story of encountering grace, the free gift of God that opens the way to new life.

Hear her story, and recognize how the whole purpose of the Church, our essence and mission, is the opening of metaphorical wombs-- minds and hearts and imaginations, friendships and agendas and communities-- by the grace of God, for the will of God to be done on earth as in heaven.

Theology (how we believe), liturgy (how we worship), stewardship (how we live), and ministry (how we love) all are called to serve God’s birthing of a new creation. Ours is not the message that God closes wombs, blocks the way, closes borders, refuses the heart, or shuts the door on anyone.

Ours is the message that God speaks the freeing word to nation and culture and religion addicted to intolerance, violence, or greed. God meets us well on our side of half-way when we’re ready to lay down false security and take up freedom and responsibility.

It may be in our afflictions that we discover where that new creation shows itself. In our own experience as persons, when our own strength fails at one level, grace moves at a deeper place and invites us to recognize new ways to trust and hope and open ourselves to truth and love.