Monday, November 16, 2009

The example of Hannah

1 Samuel 1.4-10 & Hebrews 10.11-25

Sunday's Old Testament passage seems far remote from our modern culture, yet it contains some very topical themes.
  • the jealousy and bitterness between rivals for someone else's affections;
  • the deep-seated need felt by many people for children, and their pain and sadness when this need is denied;
  • the conviction that God is in control of our lives and can change things, for better or for worse;
  • the tendency to make assumptions about other people based on the flimsiest and most superficial evidence;
  • and the idea that some people are worth more or less than others, in this case that women are worth less than men.
The first of these themes, sexual jealousy - leads naturally to the conclusion that loyalty to one person works best. Forget all the carefully refined arguments about the Christian understanding of marriage, family life or sexuality. The central idea which the Bible communicates about sexual relationships is the wisdom of committing yourself to one other person. The writers of the Old Testament recorded polygamy as an incontestable and unavoidable fact of life, but they repeatedly return to and point out its problems.

The deep-seated issue of our biological imperative to have children is another issue which remains as central to human life as ever. It drives the whole fertility industry, including practices - such as the storage and discarding of human embryos and assisted conception for older women - which some Christians have found distasteful and even unethical. This Bible passage reminds us that, at all times, our attitude should be coloured by the very great hurt which infertility causes to couples. This doesn't give scientists a licence to sanction any and every kind of intervention in human conception and gestation, and we need to remain vigilant about innovations such as designer babies, conceived to fix the medical problems of their brothers and sisters, and surrogate parenthood, but it does mean that we should always begin our thinking about this issue from a position of profound sympathy and compassion for couples who cannot have children and who need assistance with conception and pregnancy.

Someone told me the other day that the belief that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, and shapes what happens to us, is the one aspect of the Muslim faith which he finds hardest to understand and accept as a Christian. I was puzzled by this, because - of course - it's also a Biblical idea. It finds expression in Christianity in the teaching of St Paul, later expanded and amplified by John Calvin who became the main leader of the Reformed tradition. It is one of the thirty-nine articles of faith of the Church of England, and it also features in this passage. When things go wrong for us, when our ambitions are thwarted or tragedy strikes, surely it is comforting to know that God is still in control of our lives, mending the broken threads and weaving them together to repair the picture and make it beautiful and complete.

What is very difficult, however, is the notion - also found in this passage - that God deliberately does harmful things to us, such as closing Hannah's womb. I think that's a sub-Christian idea. I prefer to believe that God neither inflicts harm on us nor makes the best things happen to us, but that God works with us to use the circumstances of our lives creatively to bring about as much good as possible. I suspect that is how our prayers are answered.

Hannah went away from her encounter with Eli in the Temple convinced that her prayer had at least been heard by God and hopeful that it would be answered, and she did indeed conceive a child and has become one of the Bible's greatest exemplars of faith. But was it really a supernatural intervention that made her pregnant? Was it a change of heart by a God who had previously closed her womb and who now knew that it was the right time to open it? Or was it one of those cases where, freed from her burden of anxiety about becoming pregnant, Hannah found that it happened naturally and unexpectedly after all?

Eli proves himself to be a disastrous pastor in this situation. He allows his prejudice to shape his perception and makes a totally unfounded assumption about Hannah based on the flimsiest and most superficial evidence. Confronted by a deeply troubled person who was pouring out her soul silently to God he jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk, just as the bystanders thought that Jesus' disciples must be drunk when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Eli failed to look beyond her desperate appearance to the truth concealed within. But we should hesitate to condemn him, shouldn't we. because we live in a deeply superficial society which judges people by appearances every day. Why else are we so much more lenient towards beautiful people than plain people? Why else are Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee - from the radio era - the last of our prime ministers who were bald? Why else do women who wear the hijab, and men who wear long beards and prayer caps, face daily prejudice and hostility? Why else do older people make immediate assumptions that young people are a danger to them, and why do younger people assume that older people will be boring and out of touch? All of these attitudes are wrong and unchristian, not least because they lead to the idea that some people are worth more or less than others, and we know that isn't true because Jesus said it isn't true. St Paul got it right when he said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free person, for all are one in him.

In our Old Testament lesson we see Eli the priest falling short of his calling and almost coming between a supplicant and her God. In the New Testament lesson we see the opposite. We see a high priest who never fails because he completely identifies himself with God. This complete identification is symbolised here by his place at God's right hand, doing God's bidding. But also, he never fails because - unlike Eli - he continually identifies himself the worshippers. His spirit writes God's laws in our hearts and minds so that we no longer need to remain stuck in the vicious cycle of sinfulness, failure, guilt and repentance which the ancient system of cultic sacrifices did nothing to address. However, Jesus' identification of himself with us did involve a sacrifice, for he died standing alongside us and seeking to demonstrate God's love and forgiveness.

On armistice day Radio 4's Today programme celebrated one small act of heroism and self-sacrifice. While the trench warfare raged overhead, armies of sappers dug underground, trying to undermine the enemy's most entrenched positions and make room for a breakthrough above ground. It was terribly dangerous work and one day five men were buried in the tunnel they were digging when the roof caved in behind them after an explosion in one of the trenches above. Colleagues worked desperately to save them and eventually made a hole big enough to pass through a pipe which they used to pump air and water to the trapped men. Then the hole was made large enough to pass food through to them and finally - after several days - it was made wide enough to allow three of the men to crawl to safety. But one of the men had broken some of his ribs and couldn't get through. A colleague, Sapper William Hackett, who was a miner from Nottinghamshire, refused to leave him until the hole was made wider still. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, there was another roof collapse, and both men were trapped again. Their companions spent another four days trying to rescue them, but in vain.

William Hackett was awarded the Victoria Cross for his decision to remain with his injured colleague when he could have crawled to safety. His refusal to leave the man alone cost him his life. It was a remarkable thing to do, and an inspiration for us all - but, of course, this is what Jesus did, too. The Letter to the Hebrews says that he gave his life as an act of solidarity with human beings, so that we would not be left alone in our predicament, constantly falling short of the wholeness and perfection which God requires, constantly prey to weakness and self-centredness, but would be able to cross the divide that separates us from God and find completeness in him. That is why the example of Jesus, and the example of people like William Hackett, should provoke us to love and good deeds, always encouraging one another.

Monday, November 02, 2009

On being a piece of the jigsaw

1 John 3.1-3, Mark 12.28-34

November the First is All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day as it used to be called in old English. That, of course, is how we get the name Halloween, the evening before All Hallows. Our first Bible passage is one of the special Bible readings for All Saints Day.

It's also a reading that is especially appropriate for a baptism, because when the Bible talks about saints it doesn't mean people who are especially good or holy. It means all of the people, throughout the world, who recognise that they belong to God and who call God their Parent or Father because they know that God loves us even more than our own mothers and fathers do.

Not everyone realises this, of course. Some people don't believe in God, and some people don't believe in a personal God. In other words, they don't understand that God actually cares for us, and loves us, and wants to know us and be known by us. That's the real difference between the saints and everyone else. A saint knows how much God loves us and knows that we are God's children.

Of course, if God really loves us with a love like our mothers or fathers, that means God must love us before we learn to love him back. In fact, God loves us before we are born. So we're already God's children, and already loved by God, long before anyone knows how we're going to turn out in life, what we're going to grow up to become, and whether or not we choose to love him back.

What we do know, however, is that every human being has the potential, or the capacity, to become like God - to be filled with God's love, to share his concern for the world and everything in it, and to share his love for other people. That is the hope which lies behind the service of baptism. It's the hope that we will not only learn to recognise God's love for us, and become one of the saints - the great company of believers spread out across the world and stretching back through time - but that we will begin to be like God - sharing his love and goodness.

Today's reading from the Gospel of Mark is all about rules for living. Jesus told the teacher that we must love God with all our being and love other people as much as we love ourselves. These are wonderful ideas but what difference will they make in practice to the way we actually live?

Let's imagine that living in today's world is like being part of a huge jigsaw puzzle. Living in our town is also like being part of a jigsaw puzzle, nothing like as big as being part of the whole world picture but still pretty big. And living on my road, or my family, living in your road and your family is like being part of a small jigsaw puzzle with just a few pieces.

Each one of us holds a piece of the jigsaw in our hands. Our life, and what we say and do, makes up one piece in the whole picture, and it's up to us whether it becomes a good piece, which makes the picture better and richer, or a poor piece which diminishes the picture and makes it worse.

Or think of life another way - as a very dark road on a very dark night. Each of our lives is like a torch or a streetlight, that can help to light up the darkness and make the way clear. The greatest number of road accidents that have ever happened in Britain happened during the 1940s. There were a lot fewer cars then, but there were no streetlights because there was a black-out at night to stop enemy planes from bombing the towns and cities, and so a lot more people were knocked down and a lot more cars went off the road in the darkness. If we choose to, each one of us can shed a little light through what we do and help to light up the darkness.

And because we can make a difference, even f it's just a tiny difference, to the big picture or to the amount of light that shines in the darkness, each of us holds a little bit of hope in our hands.

There are some huge problems in the world - deforestation, global warming, the extinction of different species of animals, fighting, starvation, bullying, unkindness, selfishness. But we go on hoping because Christians believe you don't have to be an especially good, or important or famous person to make things better.

Recently President Obama got a Nobel peace Prize, and people asked, 'What special thing has he done so far to bring about peace?' And the answer is that he hasn't really achieved anything much, yet, but he's a very important person and he's trying to bring about peace. All Saints Day is there to remind us that actually everyone can win prizes. Everyone matters to God, and everyone holds a little bit of the jigsaw in their hands. And everyone can try to make the world a better place. Hope means that each of us - not just Presidents and Prime Ministers - can act for change.

But, of course, all the little pieces in the jigsaw, all the little lights along the road, will only be really effective when we join all the pieces together. That's why Christians come together in church, and its why people join pressure groups and organisations and charities, because when we join up all the pieces of the jigsaw that's when we can make the bigger picture complete.

Freed to be part of the Elect

Psalm 24.1-6,Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, John 11.32-44, Revelation 21.1-6a

Every member of the human race belongs to God. But does that make everyone a saint, a member of God's family? Not according to the Psalmist. Only someone whose deeds, motives and intentions are pure can be blessed and vindicated by God. Everyone else is out of luck. But that leaves us with a problem, because which of us is pure?

If we aren't good enough to worship God in the old temple in the old Jerusalem, what about the new Jerusalem? There is no temple in the new Jerusalem for in Jesus God comes to be with us instead of waiting for us to have the moral stamina to ascend to meet him on his holy mountain. Nor does God come in judgement. He comes ready to comfort the afflicted and the bereaved.

However, the way things are now will be swept away. The world will be turned upside down. And that cannot be good news for the powerful and the privileged, who maintain their position at other people's expense. Furthermore, we can be sure that one day this prophecy in Revelation will come to pass for the future has already been determined.

The Gospel reading could look like the odd one out here. What has it got to do with the saintliness, or otherwise, of all God's people? One connection is that Jesus is seen comforting the bereaved. The other connection, I think, is that God's love is seen in action saving Lazarus from death, and not just from physical death. The impurity of Lazarus' death and decay in the tomb represents all the impurity which separates human beings from God, and from which Jesus can free us like someone unbinding a mummy and commanding the corpse to return to the land of the living. As George Matheson said, 'Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free' - free to join all of the saints on earth and in heaven.

And so to the Wisdom of Solomon. This passage really is the odd one out because it comes from the Jewish Apocrypha and not from the Old Testament. However, it is alluded to in the Letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament.

It was written after a time of fierce persecution when most of the Jewish people had finally come around to belief in the resurrection of the dead. Otherwise it was hard to understand why so many good people had died without God intervening to save them. The writer can only cope with this calamity by imagining that they were plucked like brands from the burning, so that they only seemed to suffer and die whereas in fact God had beamed them up to safety on the mother ship.

This is an idea later inherited by some Christians - who were nicknamed Docetists after the word 'to seem' which is used about the martyrs in the passage here, who only seemed to have died. What distinguished the Docetists from other Christians is that they said Jesus had only seemed to die on the Cross. The Prophet Muhammad encountered Docetic Christians on his travels as a merchant and assumed that they represented mainstream Christianity, so to this day Muslims also believe that Jesus only appeared to have died and that no torment had actually touched him on the Cross.

However, the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon wants it both ways. He wants the martyrs to have escaped ultimate disaster and yet to have been tested in the furnace of affliction. Christians were surely right in the end to conclude that suffering pain and death is not incompatible with being close to God and being vindicated by him. So here is another reason why the Wisdom of Solomon is the odd one out from these passages.

But there is a third and final reason. As we saw this morning, All Saints Day is not about special people, it's a celebration of the great mass of ordinary believers who bear faithful witness to God's goodness in everyday acts of loving kindness. However, the Wisdom of Solomon is about the vanguard of the faithful, people who were prepared to be sacrificed for what they believed. There is a sense in which all of us are called to follow their example, and that's certainly what Jesus said when he talked about his disciples shouldering their own cross in order to follow him. But the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon sees the martyrs as set apart from everyone else, like the traditional understanding of the word saint. Their deeds make them shine forth and run like sparks through the stubble of history, and they will therefore have a special role in God's plan as his cadre of senior managers. In this sense the passage is closer to the Roman Catholic practice of canonising saints, who are somehow seen to be different from the rest of us.

And yet, in the end, the writer comes back to the idea of sainthood as being something which is ultimately open to everyone. God's grace and mercy can help us all to follow in the footsteps of the martyrs. We can all be helped to trust in God and to understand the truth. We can all be empowered to be faithful and abide with him in love. We can all join God's elect, which is a circle drawn to include people in and not to shut them out.