Do you remember, back when you were growing up, how it felt when summer was over, and it was time to get back into your regular school-year routine? You knew you’d be back to getting up early—too early—and eating a sleepy and sometimes rushed breakfast before heading off to a long day of school. And if that wasn’t enough to get you revved up and excited about the next few months, there was always afternoon homework to look forward to. Yup, there was plenty of reason to grimace, but there were also things about the school year that weren’t so bad… like seeing all of your friends again… and buying school supplies… and maybe a new outfit or two. So, back-to-school time was a period of mixed emotions… at least it was for me. I also remember having a great feeling of optimism as I started a new year of classes. You see, I wasn’t all that great of a student during the majority of my primary and secondary school years. I meant well, but I got distracted pretty easily (now they call it “attention deficit”) and it showed in my grades. And once you get in a hole, it’s hard to dig yourself out of it. The beginning of a new year was an opportunity to start over—no hole… or in today’s vernacular: a chance for a “do-over.”
In today’s lesson from Old Testament Scripture, the Hebrew people were also about to experience a season of change, though they didn’t yet know how profoundly it would affect them. Since they had found their way into Canaan after “forty years” of wandering in the wilderness, they had been shepherded by a series of “judges” who had been called by God to lead the Hebrews back onto the path of righteousness whenever their straying had gotten them into trouble. A very-predictable pattern had developed: (1) Israel would fall into apostasy (that’s falling away from God); (2) they would then be dominated by a foreign oppressor for a time… that was their hole; (3) Israel would call out to God in their misery; (4) God would send a judge to deliver them; and (5) this judge would bring about the defeat Israel’s oppressor. Woohoo! A chance for a do-over! And as long as that judge was there to keep the Hebrews on the straight and narrow, everything would be OK. But no one lives forever, and the judges had no heirs… and so the pattern repeated itself over and over again—at least twelve times, over the better part of three centuries. Whew! I may have had some bad years… but not three hundred of them! The Book of Judges tells us that when there was no one to lead them, “the people did what was right in their own eyes” (vv. 17:6 and 21:25)… with predictable results. And so, the Hebrew people called out to God again, but this time for a king. And, as always, God heard their cry. But there would be no “quick fix” for God’s rebellious people. Our prayers may be answered in unexpected ways, but always in accordance with God’s purposes.
Hannah was a young and seemingly unimportant woman, married to Elkanah, a God-fearing man of the tribe of Ephraim. She was likely only minimally-aware of the overarching cycle of apostasy and redemption that marked the path of God’s chosen people. Her world was pretty small. Despite her naiveté, however, she was to play an important role in God’s continuing plan for Israel. Beloved but barren, all Hannah knew was that she wanted… needed to have a son (it was almost a compulsion, really) and she took her petition in this regard to the One she knew that could grant it. Here’s a bit of The Message Bible translation of Hannah’s Prayer that we read as our canticle today:
I’m bursting with God-news! I’m walking on air. I’m laughing at my rivals. I’m dancing my salvation. Nothing and no one is holy like God, no rock mountain like our God.
Don’t dare talk pretentiously—not a word of boasting, ever! For God knows what’s going on. He takes the measure of everything that happens: The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces, while the weak are infused with fresh strength. The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts, while the hungry are getting second helpings. The barren woman has a houseful of children, while the mother of many is bereft. God brings death and God brings life, brings down to the grave and raises up. God brings poverty and God brings wealth; he lowers, he also lifts up. He puts poor people on their feet again; he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope, restoring dignity and respect to their lives— a place in the sun!
For the very structures of earth are God’s; he has laid out his operations on a firm foundation. He protectively cares for his faithful friends, step by step, but leaves the wicked to stumble in the dark.
No one makes it in this life by sheer muscle. God’s enemies will be blasted out of the sky, crashed in a heap and burned. God will set things right all over the earth, he’ll give strength to his king, he’ll set his anointed on top of the world! (1 Sam 2:1-10 MSG).
Kind of a fun translation, don’t you think? In any case, Hannah took her petition to God—and it just so happened that God had need of a prophet… and a kingmaker. Hannah’s son, Samuel, would eventually be apprenticed to the same priest (Eli) before whom she had prayed, and play a pivotal role in helping Israel transition from the rule of judges to that of kings. First Saul, then David and Solomon and from there… well, you know the story. It would not be an easy transition, but the Hebrews never did things the easy way. Neither do we in our own day and time, I’m thinking.
You know, I don’t remember any time in my life when there has been quite so much upheaval, so much ferment, going on in the world as there is right now. Borders are shifting, regimes are changing, ideologies are clashing in a way I never seen before. It’s frankly unsettling… and, sometimes tragic. I often wonder what God is up to, and what my part will be in the grand scheme of things. And make no mistake: we all have a part to play in the grand scheme of things. If God can use a barren country girl to further his purposes, he can use us too. Each of us. God never wastes anything! It’s the not knowing that bothers me the most: what’s going to happen next and when? And what can we do about it? What can I do about it?
Pull out your prayer books real-quick and turn to page 847. I’ll wait. Y’all remember the “Catechism,” right? It’s an outline of our faith: what we believe, why we believe it and what we’re supposed to do about it. When was the last time you looked at it? Some of y’all might remember spending a couple of hours going through it line-by-line during Adult Formation a year or so ago. And the good news is that ours is way shorter that the Catholic Church’s… only seventeen pages v. nine hundred something. It’s great to be an Episcopalian, right? There’s some good stuff in here: You see at the top of the page that God promised the Hebrews that they would be his Chosen People, and that they would bring the nations of the world to him. And, in return, the People of God were to be faithful: to love justice, to do mercy, and to walk humbly with God. It’s great to be chosen, right?
And here, in this day and time, we too are the People of God. Jesus has called us to be church to a world in need of hope. Now, turn over to page 855. At the top of the page… To what mission are we called? “To restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Maybe you remember me talking about that last week. That’s it. That’s why we’re here. “Whaaat?” you ask. How about all the problems of the world? What are we supposed to do about them? You know the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees?” It’s easy to get so wrapped up in dealing with the symptoms of problems that we fail to remember why there are problems in the first place—it’s our estrangement from our Creator that’s to blame. So, if we can somehow restore people to unity with God… then God will sort out the rest. But we get impatient, don’t we? We want to take matters into our own hands. But, like our Hebrew forebears, without someone to lead us along right paths, we tend to “do what’s right in our own eyes,” and the results are as predictable for us, in this day and age, as it was for them in theirs.
There’s been a bunch of concern expressed recently, some of it well-founded, about safety and security in places of worship in the aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh a few weeks back. Last Sunday, the big red door of our own Parish Nave, right here in Cedartown, was closed and locked a few minutes before the service started, resulting in a couple of late-arriving parishioners having to enter via the ramp door. They’re healthy, and a few extra steps won’t hurt them… maybe they won’t cut it quite so close in the future. But what about visitors and the curious? People who might not know their way around as well? People who are seeking to be restored to unity with God… for whom the big red door standing wide open serves a sign of welcome and inclusion? We get a few of these from time to time, you know. Maybe they’ll find their way in… or maybe they won’t. So, what to do? Folks are worried, and I get it. Your Vestry is concerned and is exploring ways of making this worship community safer and more secure without compromising the church’s overarching mission or putting folks at increased risk in the case of fire… which, given the age of this building, is a far-more-probable scenario than that of an active shooter. We’ll get this figured out. Meanwhile, we need to trust God to meet our needs, as did Hannah in today’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture, and keep doing the best we can to hold the doors of God’s church open to seekers and to “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). “That’s pretty easy for you to say, Father K. but let’s get real. Maybe we need to circle the wagons a little bit… show some concern for ourselves and for our families. All of this stuff about ‘the least of these’ is fine and dandy but what about us?” And I hear you. But, really? Is that the doctrine you believe Jesus would have espoused? If he had, there would be no “church” in this day and age. We’re Christ-followers, and all of our hopes for salvation and eternal life are in him. You know, when we do the call and response: “Who is the church? We are the church!” on Sundays, we need to remember it won’t always be pony rides and balloons. Just ask all of the apostles and martyrs who have “been church” before us. I’m pretty sure they could tell you some stories about what it really means to be church.
There’s no denying that we’re living in difficult and dangerous times. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there, but there’s some good stuff going on too… some of it right here at St. James’. It’s exciting on one hand. And it’s also sometimes unsettling, even scary. And I can’t tell you precisely how it’s all going to play out in the near term. But I can tell you a little bit about the final outcome: God’s purposes will be accomplished. It may not be comfortable. It may not be safe in the conventional sense; but we’ll be OK… as long as we remember that God loves us, and is with us in the person of Jesus Christ, helping us to bear the things we need to bear, and giving us the strength and courage to be church in the face of opposition and even violence.
And, when I feel afraid, and I do sometimes feel afraid, I take great comfort from the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. Amidst all of the ferment and persecution of the early church, he reminded his little flock in Rome that,
“If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 8:31, 35, 37-39).
Perhaps you’ll also find these words comforting as we approach this new season of Advent. Here’s an opportunity for us to “press reset” and take a step back from fear. We can take our cue from Hannah, who cried out to God, pleading for her heart’s desire. And her desire was fulfilled, but we should always remember that while God hears all of our prayers, he may choose to answer them in unexpected ways. In the words of the canticle: “God knows what’s going on… and will set things right in the end.” Never forget that we are God’s people. We will be upheld. But it’s our job to be faithful in pursuit of accomplishing the mission that has been set before us, and that is: “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” If we can pull that off, then God will take care of the rest. But I’m pretty sure we’re not going to be able to do that from behind locked doors. So maybe it’s time to step out in faith and put all of our hopes for safety and security in God’s Almighty hands, as corny and naive as that might sound. Please open your LEVAS hymnal to page 217 and sing with me… “He’s got the whole world in his hand….”