Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hannah's Child

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Few stories in Holy Scripture inspire as much pathos as the story of Hannah. She emerges very vividly from the pages of 1 Samuel. She remains a figure with which many women, in particular, can strongly identify. There is perhaps no longing so pure, so holy, and so God-given as the longing for a child; but, whether the causes are environmental or genetic, thousands of couples struggle with the inability to conceive and carry a child to term. Problems with infertility can be very lonely and heart wrenching, and can often be a severe test of one’s faith.

Hannah is just one of many biblical figures who struggled with infertility. Abraham and Sarah were well into their old age before they could conceive the child God promised, Rachel grieved many years unable to have a child, and Elizabeth and Zacharias (the parents of John the Baptist) also didn’t conceive until old age. These are just a few examples.

The burden of infertility often falls disproportionately on women. Especially in the ancient world of the Bible, the self-worth and identity of women was intimately bound with their ability to bear offspring. Infertile women suffered reproach and despair.
 In tribal and agrarian societies like Israel, fertility in one form or another-- whether in children or in crops -- was an all-consuming preoccupation. The survival of the family and nation depended on it.

This is one reason why God’s people were continually tempted to adopt the pagan practices of their neighbors. During the days of Hannah, the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah was worshiped alongside of Yahweh by many in Israel. She was appealed to with sacrifice in the hopes that she would bless the people with fertility and abundance. The same anxiety about fertility also lay behind the practice of polygamy that was widespread at that time and place. Polygamy was just as much a failure to trust God as the worship of idols.

Hannah was probably Elkanah’s first wife, and we know that he loved her most, but he felt he needed to take a second wife, Peninnah, in order to produce heirs. Peninnah bore many children with him; and she never let poor Hannah forget it either. Despite appearances, however, it was Hannah and not Peninnah that God had set aside for greatness. God was moved by her tears and heard the sound of her prayer.
Far from being forsaken, Hannah and the many other women who struggle with infertility in the Bible are the special instruments of God’s mission of salvation. Why is this such a prominent pattern throughout the Scriptures?

The barrenness of Israel’s mothers is a picture of life in a fallen world. We feel ourselves outside of God’s blessing in a futile and hopeless world where the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.

In her dystopian novel, Children of Men, P.D. James describes a world deprived of any hope for the future. It is set in the near future, thirty years after every male human being on the planet has mysteriously become sterile. As a result, the human race faces imminent extinction. Civilization is crumbling; and in Great Britain, where the novel is set, people have lost all interest in politics and have left the nation to be governed by a small council. In other parts of the world, the practice of human sacrifice has reemerged as a fertility ritual. Now imagine what it would be like, in a world like this, for a woman suddenly to conceive a child.

A film adaptation of the movie premiered on December 25, 2006, Christmas Day. The story isn’t the kind of heartwarming tale we normally associate with the Christmas season, but I thought the parallel was really quite powerful.

At a time of cultural and political turmoil and anxiety, Isaiah prophesied, “Behold, the virgin [a young woman] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This prophecy of course ultimately refers to Jesus Christ, but there is a sense in which every child that is born is a sign to us of the fact that God is still with us, that he has not abandoned us, and that there is hope for the future. God has declared in and through his elect people that he will bring blessing to us in our barrenness, joy in our sorrow, peace in our violence, light in our darkness, and hope in our hopelessness.

Hannah, filled with the Holy Spirit, perceives the bigger picture. She recognizes the historical and cosmic significance of what God has done for her and she sings a song of praise and thanksgiving to God. The song that she sings in the second chapter of 1 Samuel is the canticle appointed for today in the usual place of the psalm.

The connection of this song to the story of this poor woman and her struggle to bear a child is not immediately obvious. There is of course the celebration of how God exalts the poor and brings down the proud, which is relevant to Hannah’s struggle with her rival Peninnah, but this is a song that celebrates the mighty power of Yahweh to conquer Israel’s enemies.It is a song about clashing armies and military conquest. It culminates in a prophecy concerning Israel’s coming King, God’s anointed, his Messiah, and his exaltation by God.

It makes more sense when we consider the fact that Hannah’s child, Samuel, will be a mighty prophet and Judge of Israel, and that it is he that God will use to anoint David as King over all Israel and that David’s Son, his heir, Jesus Christ, will reign as Lord forever.

The biblically and liturgically astute will also notice a striking similarity between Hannah’s song and the song of another young woman, The Magnificat, the song that the Virgin Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke about the child that is miraculously in her womb.

Both songs are sung in thanksgiving for a child and celebrate God’s intervention in human affairs. In one case, God gives a child to a woman who is seemingly infertile, and in another God miraculously gives a child to a woman who is a virgin. Both songs begin with exalting in the Lord’s greatness; and both speak of how God humbles the proud, conquers Israel’s enemies, lifts up the lowly, and satisfies the hungry. They are songs of judgement and vindication, of great reversals, of how God is able to turn the world upside down (or rather right side up).

Mary’s Song is a continuation of the song that Hannah sung. It is the climax of all of God’s mighty actions on behalf of his people throughout history, and the fulfillment of his promises. Hannah is the mother of Mary, the type of which she is the fulfillment, and Mary is the mother of Israel par-excellence.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus himself speaks to his disciples of a judgement soon to come. It will be a time of great reversals. There will be wars and rumors of wars, the natural world will be in a state of turmoil and instability. There will be earthquakes, and famines, but Jesus tells them not to be alarmed. God will be with them. Appropriately enough, given all that we have been talking about, Jesus describes all of these phenomena as ‘birth pangs.’ God is about to bring fourth something new, something miraculous, something unexpected. Their salvation is at hand.  Now the wicked unbelievers speak arrogantly, they kill and destroy, but when the world’s true Lord appears they will be thrown down and shattered, cut off in darkness, but his faithful ones will inherit a seat of honor. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Saint Martin of Tours

Saint Martin was born in Hungary to pagan parents somewhere between the year 316-336 A.D. His Father was an officer in the Roman military. Christianity had been made legal not long before and promoted by the Emperor Constantine, but it was not yet widely accepted in all parts of the Empire. It tended to be more popular in the East and in the cities. Among members of the military the cult of Mithras was still much more prevalent. His parents were very distressed when, as a boy, Martin began attending services at a Christian church as a catechumen, or a student preparing for baptism. His father had him sent away to be trained for the military as it was customary for the sons of Roman officers.

At age fifteen he was required to join the cavalry and by 18 he was stationed in Gaul. During his service to the military on one bitterly cold winter’s night, Martin game across a poor man begging at the city gate. The man was clothed in little more than rags and was fiercely shivering. Martin had nothing to give him at the time, only his sword, his uniform, and cloak. Martin took his cloak and divided it down the middle giving half to the beggar to wrap himself in. That night as he lay in his bed he saw a vision of Christ wrapped in the garment he gave to the beggar. Jesus spoke and said, "Martin, still an un-baptized catechumen, has covered me with his cloak." It wasn’t long after that night that Martin accepted Baptism.

Becoming a Christian put Martin in a very difficult situation in relation to his profession as Roman Soldier. Christians at that time were pacifist, they were not permitted to go to war or to kill another person in combat. When Gaul fell under threat from barbarians during the reign of Julian the Apostate, Martin refused to go to battle. He declared, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight." He was thrown in jail for cowardice, but volunteered to go out in the front of battle unarmed. His superiors were prepared to take him up on this, but the opposing forces surrendered and made terms of peace before the battle even began!

Because St. Martin laid down his arms for Christ, traditionally on this day November 11th the Feast of Saint Martin, peace treaties were often signed in his honor. This makes it very fitting that this day is celebrated as Veteran’s Day and in Europe Armistice Day.   For, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on the feast of this true Christian soldier who chose the way of Christ over war, in the year 1918, by the grace of God the First World War came to an end with the signing of the Armistice.

After leaving the army, Martin became a disciple of Bishop Hilary of Poitiers a staunch defender of Trinitarian, Nicene, Christianity against the Arian heresy which was rampant in the imperial court. It was a time of intense persecution for catholic Christians. Hillary was sent away into exile at which time Martin returned home where he was able to lead his mother to Christ. His father would not accept Christianity.

In Milan Martin preached against Arianism and was resisted by the Arian Bishop Auxentius. He was beaten and thrown out of the city. He found shelter on an island where he lived the solitary life of a hermit.

Despite the fact that he courageously suffered persecution for his commitment to the catholic faith, Martin is well known for advocating for mercy for heretics and opposing the death penalty.
He opposed the execution of the heretic Priscillius who lead a large movement in Spain that taught compulsory celibacy for lay people as well as other oddities. His entreaty was refused however and Priscillius was executed. Martin was even accused of being a sympathizer despite his vigorous opposition to Priscillus’ errors.  

 When Bishop Hilary returned from exile, Martin founded the first monastery in Western Europe at LigugĂ© near Poitiers in AD 360. He later created a much larger monastic complex near Tours when he becomes the bishop.

The story of his elevation to the seat of Bishop in Tours is an amusing one. Martin was an extremely humble individual, dedicated to the quiet life of a monk, but the people of Tours were determined that he come and be their bishop. According to legend, when the delegation came to bring him to Tours to be ordained, he hid in a barn among a flock of geese. The delegation searched all over for him, but couldn’t find him. His hiding place was at last given away by the honking of the geese. They drug Martin by force back to Tours where he was consecrated as Bishop.  This is why it is a custom throughout Europe to celebrate his feast by eating roast goose.

Saint Martin died at the age of eighty of natural causes. Although he did not die a martyrs death it is said he received a martyrs honor. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Widow's Offering

Mark 12:38-44

It has often been said, if you really want to know what a man cares about, what he values most above all else, look at what he spends his time and money on. Jesus said something very similar, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our treasure is not merely our wealth, or our material possessions. No, it’s much more than that. It is the thing that we dedicate our life to, that which we count as our highest good, the thing that we value above all else. In a way our treasure is our god, it is what we worship. Worship is much more than external religious observance, much more than a discrete religious act performed perhaps once a week. No, it has to do with the orientation of the heart, and what we treasure.

In the older sense of the word, “worship” means to ascribe worth to someone or something. Some of you may be familiar with the marriage rite of the 1662 Prayer Book, “With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” A couple exchanges rings in a wedding ceremony as a sign of solemn commitment to one another. One of the reasons that the rings are gold is as an expression of the great worth of the other person, and the costliness of the commitment.

It is a question worthy of serious consideration. What is it which I say I cherish most above all else? Is my professed love reflected in my life or do the ways in which I spend my time and money tell another story? To put it starkly, “What is the God that I worship? Am I among those to whom Isaiah prophesied, ‘These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me!’”

In our Gospel today we read, “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.” This is a curious verse. What was Jesus up to? Was he just engaging in a bit of ‘people watching?’ Is he the nosy sort that always needs to know other people’s business? When we go to the bank, we know it is only polite to stand behind the line while the person ahead of us makes his or her transaction. Our personal finances are a private manner and not for the indiscriminate gaze.

Jesus, however, is the one to whom all hearts are open. He is the one to whom we all must one day give account. He has a vested interest in knowing where our treasure is. Was he looking merely to disparage? No. he was also looking in order to commend those whose giving was real and genuine. 

So what was it that our Lord saw on that day? We are told that many rich people came and gave large sums of money. These are those who receive commendation from the world in the form of testimonials, commemorative plaques, and having memorials named after them, but Jesus singles none of these out for special mention. Instead, he gives glory to a poor widow, whose contribution was very small, perhaps the least of all. She was able to give only two copper coins the worth of a penny and yet he says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

This short story teaches us that it is not the size of our contribution that matters most to God, but the act of worship, of thanksgiving, of consecration. The world looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart and sees the intention.

Perhaps on this New Consecration Sunday you are thinking, “The church doesn’t need my small contribution. This is a wealthy community and many have much more to give than I do. The church won’t fall without my meager tithe.”

First of all, let me say, every little bit helps. The Church really does depend on your gifts to do its work and to provide for those who serve here, including myself! That however is really beside the point. Even if the Church had an unlimited supply of wealth—which trust me we don’t—giving of your substance would still be a spiritual imperative. Giving is about more than keeping the lights on.

In the Old Covenant, God commanded the people to consecrate a tenth of all their substance, or a tithe, as belonging to the Lord. To consecrate something means to set it aside for holy use. In the agrarian society of the ancient Hebrews, wealth was measured by the produce of the land. In the Book of Leviticus God commands, "'A tithe [or a tenth] of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.” Jesus affirms the commandment of Leviticus while asking much more. We must be prepared to give not only our wealth, but also our obedience,

 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
If you are wondering what and how much to give, that is the Biblical guideline. Why does God ask this? First, to offer up our treasure to the Lord, in this case a tenth of everything, is an act of worship. It is an acknowledgment of the surpassing greatness and worthiness of the Lord. It, as we have been saying, is a demonstration with our lives of who it is that we really treasure.

Secondly, our giving is an act of thanksgiving. Does God really need our wealth? Not really.  Everything that exists belongs to the world, because he made it, and there is nothing we could give to him that he did not first give to us. He has given us all we have. He has held back nothing from us, even handing over his only begotten son to suffering and death. Jesus poured out his life’s blood for us; what will we offer to him?

When we consecrate a portion of our wealth to him, we are making it a thanksgiving sacrifice to him. It is God’s great generosity to us in providing us a way to give back to him for all he has done for us. It is like a father who gives his daughter some money so that she can express her love for him in buying him a birthday present. God has provided you with everything you have. Will you offer a portion of that in gratitude to him? 

Finally, to give is an act of faith. What made the widow’s gift so much more commendable than that of the many rich people who gave? They gave out of their surplus, but she gave out of her poverty. We should offer to God not what we have left over after we have seen to all our other needs and desires, but our first fruits. We need to make God our first and greatest priority. Giving should be sacrificial; it should cost us something.

I think this is really the most difficult thing about making a pledge of our wealth to God. If you are like me, you worry about your financial security. Will there be enough? What if unforeseen expenses come up and I can’t pay them? We naturally want to have a little security, but many of us are living check to check.

God asks us to take a step of faith. “Set aside a portion for my service and my honor and I will provide,” he promises us. Do you trust God enough to help you to meet your commitment? To those anxious about their financial security the prophet Malachi has these remarkable words, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”

Likewise, our Lord himself said, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on… Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?”
Who or what is it that you really trust? Where do you really look for security? Who is it that provided for you everything you have ever had? Who is it that really deserves your worship?

“ And Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”

Saturday, November 7, 2015

All Things New: A Sermon for All Saints Day

Isaiah 25:6-9                                                                                                             Psalm24                                                                                                            Revelation 21:1-6a                                                                                                     John 11:32-44


Not long ago I was talking to a well-meaning, but somewhat confused, fellow Christian—not a member of our parish—about the recent speech Pope Francis gave to congress. He was frustrated. “I don’t understand this Pope,” he told me, “why is he so concerned with the environment? He wants to save the world, but doesn’t he realize it’s all going to burn up?”

Now, I’m not about to give you a lecture about climate change or about our government’s environmental policies. I could offer you my opinion, but what good would that do? I’m not a scientist nor am I running for office, and this is after all a homily and not a lecture or a stump speech, but I would like to address his theological point.

First, Christians should indeed care about creation, because God does. God cares about the world because he made it! When he finished his act of creation he declared that it was very good, and he instructed men and women to care for and cultivate his good creation as its stewards.

Secondly, God’s ultimate plan for this earth is salvation not destruction. Our passage from Revelation speaks of a new heavens and a new earth, but this doesn’t mean that God is going to scrap the old creation. God says, “See I am making all things new.” He is repairing and salvaging what was broken. 

We should understand this the same way we understand what the scripture says about making us a new creation in Christ. There is indeed a kind of death that needs to happen, but there is also resurrection! As Saint Thomas says, “Grace does not destroy nature, it perfects it!”

Later in the service, we are going to baptize two new Christians, Cora Stringer and Connor Murdock. Baptism is an effectual sign of God’s power to make all things new. Just as being washed with water is a removal of dirt from the body, just as Noah’s flood was a washing away of wickedness from the earth, just as Pharaoh’s armies were drowned in the Red Sea but the children of Israel passed through unharmed, so in baptism are we washed clean of corruption, purged of evil, and our enemies drowned in its waters. The waters of baptism are God’s means of making saints out of sinners.
When we baptize with water, God baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. When the Bible talks about the earth and its works being burned up and destroyed with intense heat, we need to read it in light of other places where it says that he has established them forever and where he says he will set creation free from its bondage to corruption and decay. 

The fire that God sends upon the earth, like the waters of baptism, is for the purpose of new creation, of restoration, and purging from evil. Like gold that that is passed through the fire, all that is dross is burned away. What is the dross that is passing away? It is the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations, the power of sin and death and all the grief and sorrow that follows with it.  

 We who have been baptized in Christ are being rescued from the evil in the world and in our own nature, but God does not save us from the world so much as for the sake of the world. God graciously calls us to be his partners, his agents of healing and restoration in a hurting world that is still all too full of tears. This is what it means to be a saint. All Saints are the lights of the world in their generation.

Just as the Genesis story speaks of the fall of human beings precipitating the fall of creation as well, of unleashing the forces of sin and death in the world, the New Testament speaks of the salvation of human beings as precipitating the salvation of the creation as well, of unleashing the forces of new creation in the world.

Saint Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God [That’s us!]. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

 Those who are baptized into Christ have the first fruits of the Spirit, the down payment on the new creation, the new Heavens and Earth. God brings that glorious future into the present. He gives us his promise of salvation and declares that we are Saints by the grace of God. 
There is a sense in which all the baptized are Saints of God. That is Saint Paul’s favorite way of referring to us, but the Church has also uses the term “Saints” in particular to refer to those who are already enjoying the glory of Heaven.

The grace of God received in baptism is more than just a onetime event. When we are baptized, we receive the assurance of salvation, but we are also ushered into a life of ongoing repentance and discipleship. We must continually recommit ourselves to our baptismal promises. The Bible teaches us that we are saved through faith in Christ and through baptism, but it also teaches us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to press forward to the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. God has called us saints but he is also perfecting us in order that we may be qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

In the promises of baptism, Christ has called us forth from our tomb. Just as he called out Lazarus, he has called us from death to life, but also like Lazarus we still have the stench of the tomb on us. Even those who have been called to new life in Christ, through baptism, continue to struggle with the lingering effects of sin in this life, but Christ assures us, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"

To return to where we began, I think my friend was frustrated because of his sense that the Gospel was about our personal salvation and the hope of immortality rather than some project to save the world. He is partially right, the Gospel is indeed about our salvation, about living a life of repentance and pursuing holiness, but that is one piece of a larger hope.  We shouldn’t drive a wedge between holiness and working to make the world a better place, because the two goals are related, they are inseparable.

To Christians only concerned with the salvation of their soul, God challenges them to share in his love for all creation. To those who want to make the world a better place and are concerned about the future of the earth, God teaches them that the way he will save the world is by making them a Saint. This is what the world is waiting for.