LEARN and PRAY and Birth Pangs of the Coming Age

Sermon preached November 18, 2018 – Pentecost +26
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

1 Samuel 1:4-20
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

LEARN and PRAY and Birth Pangs of the Coming Age

These last weeks of the Season After Pentecost we are learning more about the practices of the Way of Love, Practices for Jesus-Centered Life, a rule of life, to which we’ve been invited by our Presiding Bishop. Those seven practices are: Turn – Learn – Pray – Worship – Bless – Go – Rest. The last Sunday of Creation, we spent some time with Rest; and last week we considered Turn and Bless. Our collect makes it obvious, we are supposed to spend today with LEARN and PRAY: From the Way of Love Materials: “LEARN: Reflect on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings.” They then paraphrase our collect this morning: “Grant us so to hear [the Holy Scriptures], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. By reading and reflecting on Scripture, especially the life and teachings of Jesus, we draw near to God and God’s word dwells in us. When we open our minds and hearts to Scripture, we learn to see God’s story and God’s activity in everyday life.”

“PRAY: Dwell intentionally with God daily. Jesus teaches us to come before God with humble hearts, boldly offering our thanksgivings and concerns to God or simply listening for God’s voice in our lives and in the world. Whether in thought, word or deed, individually or corporately, when we pray we invite and dwell in God’s loving presence.” (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love-materials)

In our text this morning, Hannah prays in the temple so fervently that Eli thinks she is drunk. She is praying to bear a child, and we hear Jesus talking about birth pangs in the Gospel as well. (Birthing seems to be the theme of our morning.)

Hannah knows from the women who have gone before her – that God acts. God has opened the wombs of barren women. The Scriptures have told her as much. Even in her old age, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, and beloved but barren Rachel went on to bear two of Jacob’s many sons. Hannah is also aware of the risks involved. She has learned from Sarah and Rachel how the desperate desire to have a child can distort a woman’s perspective. Having learned from the mistakes of those who have gone before her – Hannah chooses a different path, she turns to God completely, and prays. She is as undaunted as she is faithful. Eli, to his credit, realizes he is wrong about her, recovers quickly, and adds his prayer to hers. He assures her that God listens to the faithful, that God will hear her. Hannah’s faith is rewarded in the birth of Samuel. Samuel, who will be the last judge of Israel, who will be instrumental in bringing Israel to the next stage in its history. The golden days of the United Monarchy of Israel are about to be born.

We will hear echoes of Hannah’s words in a few weeks, when Mary speaks similar words to God, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” It’s all about change – bringing something new into the world, the end of oppression, paving the way for what is next. Hannah prays to God for birth pangs, to change what is beyond her ability to change; and through her faithfulness and her devotion, she is instrumental in initiating the birth pangs of Israel’s monarchy.

Birthing is not neat and clean, it’s messy and dramatic, imperfect as it is beautiful, and it is costly. So perhaps it’s not that strange that Jesus uses the image of birth to talk about the kind of abrupt, wrenching change that is coming. Jesus is talking about the coming destruction of the Temple, which is beyond the disciples’ ability to imagine. He’s also talking about the coming of the kingdom of God. Which, if we are fair to the disciples, is beyond our ability to really imagine – as much as the destruction of the temple was beyond theirs.

But we suspect that the coming of the kingdom of God involves justice that rolls down like water. Or maybe truth that refines like fire and is ignited when someone is courageous and faithful enough to speak that truth to power. To focus undaunted on the changes that might be possible with God’s help.

But what we do know is that the change won’t be neat and clean, instead it will be messy and painful. Jesus is talking about change as in revolution, the destruction of the temple occurs because of a Jewish revolt against the oppression of the Roman Empire. This revolt brings about such discord that Rome responds – the revolution sparks other revolutions in a wave across the Jewish population (Masada being the last holdout). And Rome reacts launching a three-year campaign to destroy resistance – ultimately they destroy the Temple and slaughter thousands in Jerusalem. They even salt the ground so that nothing will grow, nothing will bear fruit, so there will be devastation for generations. In the end, the temple is destroyed, the place of God on earth, the Holy of Holies… and yet… God still found a way to be present with God’s people. God on earth in a new way. For those of us who are Christian – Jesus, the incarnation of God, who would be raised from the dead, when the Romans attempted to destroy him as well. And both Jews and Christians still found ways to worship God – though the traditions shifted, and things were different. But their religion survived… their traditions changed and survived. Something new was born, created in aftermath of the chaos and destruction. So, it’s understandable that Jesus is referencing apocalyptic texts, what is coming will feel like the end of the world to those who have to live through it.

In our own day and age, we know what it feels like to be on the edge of the catastrophic, we understand why some would want to call down the heavens, or even think that the end has already begun. The fires in California, the volcanic eruption and the hurricanes, the drought and flooding, and record temperatures. The man-made catastrophic events which are beyond our understanding, the hate-filled speech and action, the way we move from one heartbreaking event to the next. Our need to define against, instead of understanding we are better together. It’s almost beyond our ability to bear.

But what about our LEARN and PRAY? Can we learn something from our scriptures about these days in which we live? I believe Hannah would tell us simply that learn and pray works, if we are faithful and undaunted. Mark’s Gospel takes an even more comprehensive view – the gospel is hope when all hope seems lost. The point of apocalypse is that ultimately God will be revealed – and whatever oppresses us personally, whatever oppresses us as a people, all this shall pass away – and something new, something of God will be born out of the rubble, out of the chaos, out of the despair. So, we are called to pay attention – to see how what we are experiencing right now might be leading to new life. We are called to notice the signs of hope and wonder all around us, even now, in the midst of the chaos. And to focus on what’s most important. To learn to stand together, and find our hope and strength, and our voices to speak justice and truth to power, and our will to act for those in need.

Birth pangs are the sign of the coming of what is next, they are part of the process of bringing something new into the world. Work that involves imagining something which is not yet and bringing it into being. Change, possibility, what might be – and staking your life on it. It’s costly, and risky.

My friends, siblings in Christ, what will we give to bring in the kingdom of God? To be part of the hope the world needs right now? Praying to God, and saying, ‘Yes, we will do this. This is our moment, this is our action to take.’ “Let your servants find favor in your sight.” In the days ahead, may we Learn and Pray. Amen.