Pangs of Birth
The Rev. Jennifer Adams – November 18, 2018 – Proper 28, Year B
Proper 27, Year B: 1 Samuel 4:1-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
1 Samuel 4:1-20
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore, Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore, Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Well we’ve entered those weeks when the gospel passages focus on “end times” which we heard more than alluded to this morning in the gospel of Mark. Next week is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday on the liturgical calendar. Then we move into Advent and begin a new church year. And as we end one year and begin the next, the passages are more “apocalyptic” in their tone and in their message. We hear of wars and earthquakes and famines, the throwing down of buildings and the presence of false prophets. We’ll hear of Christ coming in the clouds, stars falling from the sky, and all of the tribes of the earth wailing! And in the midst of all of that, we’ll hear the message, the promise that Christ himself is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.
So hang onto your hats! It’s going to be a bit of a ride in here for these next four weeks or so.
But really, that shouldn’t be too much of a culture shock. Because it’s true out there too. It’s a hold-onto-your-hat kind of world and so we need to know how to live in it, how to be people of faith in the midst of strong winds and changing skies. Knowing how to interpret what appear to be life-ending or world-ending events and storms is an essential skill of faith. In response to those apocalyptic types of experiences, the gospel invites us to do a challenging but holy thing.
In all of these passages we’re being invited to see our endings as our beginnings.
The challenge is that endings can look to us like that’s all that there is. (Hence the language of “end.”) But according to the gospels, an end is never all there is. There is always more to come. The other challenge is that when we’re living through one of our own perceived or actual endings, we’re inclined to try control it, to assume we know how the ending should go.
Now one of the things that I appreciate about these apocalyptic passages is their honesty. Sophisticated folks (as we tend to see ourselves to be) often approach readings like these as “not meant to be taking literally.” We emphasize using our imaginations to engage these readings, in effect keeping them at a safe intellectual distance from us and us from them. The problem with that approach is that we know wars and we know famines. They’re real. We know what it’s like to be led astray and need to regroup again. That’s real too. I haven’t necessarily seen stars fall from the sky, but technically, they do. And if we’re listening at all, it doesn’t take much to know that the tribes of the earth are wailing, loudly, every day.
In fact the hard truth is that we can add to this list of apocalyptic images, because life often resembles these passages. We don’t need imagination to engage that part of these texts. We all have stories about one dimension or another of our lives, or several dimensions all at one time being completely shaken to the point of introducing an ending that we didn’t see coming – as if an earthquake had erupted in our living room.
It’s true of the world also. The images of boats overflowing with people as their nations struggle and ours does too; the news of treaties being shaken to their core; images of famine, hunger, and hurt are all around us. And these stories are hard because they remind us of the fragility of it all. But they are also important to let in, because they make us honest about the fragility of it all.
If there is a positive to the last many years and I think there are many, it’s that we can no longer deny the presence of the kinds of very real earth shaking experiences that apocalyptic passages reveal.
What’s funny is how even given all of that, we still tend to be surprised when life takes a turn from the pastoral vision of green pastures and still waters into something that involves tumults and falling objects. But remember that that vision of green pastures is a vision of heaven, not the world. Which doesn’t mean that life here is completely devoid of green pastures and still waters, it’s just that those places and moments of calm and the occasional glimpse of eternal peace they give us, have a more limited place than they eventually will have. Apocalyptic is perhaps more the norm. And so, we need to be equipped for those things too.
And we can be! That’s the good news today. We are fragile and we break, but that’s never the end of the story. We simply need to hone the skill of seeing our endings as our beginnings and we’ll be fine. We’ll be more than fine. We will “be well,” in a way that is a holy well, as Julian of Norwich once said.
Which doesn’t mean that we’re called to deny the pain of the endings that come, just the opposite. Apocalyptics are full of human anguish which is why they are so very hard to read. But they can also be comforting, because we know pain and being honest about it can help a process of healing begin.
Take Hannah, whom we heard about in the first reading today. Hannah was living through the ending that was her not being able to birth a child which meant that the family line would come to an end. There is a sermon here about the pain carried by many women who struggle to have children, and if that’s what has jumped out at you this morning, let me know and we’ll talk more. That’s not the specific sermon I’m preaching today, but we can go to that place together. Just let me know.
Now in the face of this terrible loss, Hannah was ridiculed by “a rival” who for whatever reason, continued to kick Hannah while she was down. There were no green pastures in sight and the waters were more like rapids going over a fall, than they were like stillness of any kind. And so, one day, Hannah let it rip on the steps of the temple. She “wept bitterly” the story says, and she also prayed.
This is a story of one individual’s apocalypse.
Hannah’s stars were falling and her entire world was quaking. So much so that Eli the priest “thought she was drunk” based on the words she was uttering in prayer. Note: prayers uttered while weeping bitterly don’t come out in fully coherent, collect or litany form. And so, Eli’s first move was to confront Hannah about her supposed drinking problem. Which was not the most pastoral of initial responses. But it was a good example of how the quakes that ran through living rooms then were no better interpreted than they are now.
But then when Hannah explained, Eli got it. She shared her story with him and Eli was willing to receive it. And then Eli did a beautiful thing. He helped Hannah see that there was more to come, that there was hope to be had. And maybe that’s one the greatest gifts we can give to each other.
We can offer a presence in grief that allows whatever needs to flow to flow, but also communicates a gentle hope that this ending is not all there is, it’s never all there is. This isn’t the kind of presence that denies another’s pain, but that through a kind and loving presence offers another piece to it all. Now I want to be careful here not to imply that that’s why this story moved in the direction of Hannah having a son. Not every story moves that way. What I want us to hear is that Hannah’s ending was not an ending. There was a new beginning on its way. It’s that birth of “more” that I want us to hold onto.
“Birth pangs” are actually what Jesus called these apocalyptic kinds of experiences in today’s gospel passage. Something is ending, but something is getting born, and this side of heaven, both of those things are true all of the time. We’re always ending, sometimes more obviously and blatantly than other times, but it’s always true. And when we come together, we’re even more aware of that then when we’re alone, which is an important reason to come together. There are those among us who have an earthquake running through their living room right now. And there are those among us welcoming new life right now. And many of us are trying to integrate either end of that spectrum. And all of that is true out in our world too.
The gospel reminds us in these stories that because we are held in hands greater than our own, while things may appear to be an apocalyptic mess, something, someone, maybe you, maybe me, maybe all of us are always trying to be born. The end is simply never the end.
Padraig O’Touma, one of my current favorite theologians put it like this in a poem:
And I said to him:
Are there answers to all of this?
And he said:
The answer is in a story
And the story is being told.
And I said:
But there is so much pain
And she answered, plainly:
Pain will happen.
Then I said: Will I ever find meaning?
And they said:You will find meaning
Where you give meaning.
The answer is in a story.
And the story isn’t finished.
What we are invited to do as community of faith is a beautiful thing. We’re being called to hone the skill of holding our endings as beginnings, letting the anguishes we know also be heard as pangs of birth. It’s easier said than done, but it gets easier if we remind ourselves that the story isn’t finished, yet. Yours, mine, ours – not done. It never is. And as O’ Touma says, we can “find meaning.” We can always find meaning, because we can always find love. And with love no matter at what point in our stories it comes, there is hope to be had.
Paul said this in the Letter to the Hebrews, “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith… Let us consider how to provoke one another” (which are great words,) “let us provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
As wars rage and earthquakes abound, as nations rise against nation we’ll gather on the temple steps with those who weep. We’ll embrace one another in the living rooms we know. And we’ll meet the boats overflowing with those seeking hope on our shores. And together, alpha and omega holding us all, we’ll help birth a new day for us all.