Sunday, October 16, 2016

Assumptions--a sermon on Hannah and Eli (1 Samuel 1-2)

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Assumptions
1 Samuel 1.9-20, 2.1-10
16 October 2016, NL3-6, H2-1 (God Provides)

After Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and divided up the land among the twelve tribes, they lived in the promised land for around 300 years, during which God would occasionally raise up judges to lead them through a crisis—judges such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. During this time, scripture tells us “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The fabric of the nation frayed as each man looked out only for himself, until by the end of the book of Judges, society had so decayed that people, especially women, were treated as disposable.
It is at the end of this 300 years that we meet Hannah and her husband Elkanah, and her rival wife Peninah. Hannah was barren, and she longed for a child more than anything else in the world. Peninah had many children, and used her status as a mother to bully Hannah. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, she could not be consoled. We pick up their story at the point when the family goes up to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, as they did each year. The reading from 1st Samuel chapters 1 and 2 can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.


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 worshipped 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.’
Hannah prayed and said,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
   my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
   because I rejoice in my victory.

‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
   no one besides you;
   there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
   let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
   and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
   but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
   but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
   but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
   he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
   he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
   he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
   and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
   and on them he has set the world.

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
   but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
   for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
   the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
   he will give strength to his king,
   and exalt the power of his anointed.’



how great is my hair?
if you're going to make assumptions about me
based on my hair,
I hope they're "she's obviously awesome"
and not "I can't take her seriously." 
Assumptions: we all make them, we all have them, and many of us chafe under them.
We all know what happens when we assume.
But it’s as if we can’t help ourselves, we do it anyway. It’s unconscious—we’ve just absorbed certain things, and we see them as if they are reality, never thinking to question them until something dramatic happens to tear the scales from our eyes and give us a little clearer vision.

Hannah was a woman about whom a lot of assumptions were made. Peninah, the other wife, and all the rest of society assumed Hannah was worthless, a barren woman who contributed nothing, not even fulfilling her most basic purpose. She was easy to look down on, because she was in fact beneath them. Her husband assumed she knew her own worth in his eyes. It’s likely that Hannah even assumed about herself that she didn’t matter, that something was wrong with her.

And then Eli, sitting on the Temple steps, watched her…a barren woman, talking to herself, crying. Perhaps she was what we used to derisively call “hysterical.” He assumed she was drunk. He assumed she was a sinner, a woman of no account, making a spectacle of herself, embarrassing herself and her family.

But Hannah shocked everyone—probably including herself—by standing up and challenging Eli’s assumptions. NO: She is not drunk. She is not a worthless woman. She is a person made in God’s image, whole and beloved. She matters.

Any number of things could happen at this point, when someone challenges our assumptions. This is the moment a lot of violence, especially domestic violence, happens—when one person asserts their worth, contradicting the one who assumed they were in control. So often we make assumptions about the people we see, or the people we hear about. Consciously or not, we have decided somewhere along the way that they matter less—because of their gender, or their skin color, or their weight, or their sexual orientation, or their religion, or their economic class. We would never put it like that, of course. We look back on those ancient times when women’s worth was measured by their ability to bear male children and we shake our heads, grateful that isn’t the scale anymore.

But if we’re honest, we have a scale. Some people are more worthy, more deserving, than others. Somewhere along the way, humans equated “having” with “deserving.” And when those who don’t have, and therefore don’t deserve, stand up and insist that they matter too, they are made in the image of God, they are beloved…we who live with a lot of advantages have a hard time with that. Perhaps we even fear that if they are loved and valued, then we won’t be anymore. So we lash out, with words or with guns. We put them back in their place, whether by wondering why they won’t just conform to our standards or by physically putting them where we think they belong—often in prison.

Thankfully for Hannah, when God provided her the courage to value herself and to challenge Eli’s assumptions, God also provided Eli the courage to hear her with an open mind and heart, and to drop his beliefs and treat her differently. Instead of chastising her further for her uppity response, or hitting her, or calling her husband to shame her in public, he gave her a blessing. He recognized there was more to this story than he originally perceived.

It is from this moment—not the moment she gets pregnant, or the moment she gives birth to a boy, or the moment she drops Samuel off at the Temple—this moment, when Hannah challenged the assumptions that had been made about her, that “her countenance was sad no longer.” The weight of other people’s projections and expectations was lifted, and she saw herself as she truly was. And not only that, but God provided her a witness, someone else who could see her as she really was, even if it took some fighting on her part to get there. Eli’s perception was changed as he allowed Hannah to be a person in her own right, not just a carrier of other people’s assumptions. And Hannah’s life was changed from the inside out when she knew herself both seen and valued.

It isn’t surprising that Hannah would burst into song—with a new understanding of herself, she sees God’s world more clearly. She sees that it is God who provides—from the foundations of the earth to the cares of the barren woman. And her whole song is about how God’s providence challenges the assumptions of the world—breaking the bows of the mighty, while strengthening the feeble, filling the hungry while the full seek nourishment, raising up the poor and the needy from the dust and seating them with princes. While the world is in the business of getting and keeping, and often does so by pushing some down, God is in the business of reversal.

This week there was a conversation in one of the narrative lectionary preaching groups about Hannah’s song, particularly the line “my mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.” Surely we don’t want to encourage people to gloat? After all, God calls us all to reconciliation and wholeness, not to celebrating at the expense of others. We talked about this for a long time, but ultimately I think this is another place where we are relying too heavily on our assumptions, and God may be providing us a new way of seeing.

Throughout her story, Hannah has been brutally honest about her distress and her need. She doesn’t mince words or pretend things are okay (but by the way, God, if you have a moment…) She has borne the abuse and scorn of society and even her own family, for years. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that she would then have a moment of triumph? It doesn’t last long—her song is about God and all the ways God works in the world to bring about justice. But for a moment, she gets to be angry at how she has been treated. She is allowed to feel that anger.

It’s that moment when we get uncomfortable. We don’t want people to be angry. And in some cases, if we were fully honest and allowed God to open our eyes like Eli’s, we don't even necessarily want people to credit God with the reversal. We want the credit for making change, creating space, helping the less fortunate. Acknowledging that it is God who provides—often through our abundance—means also acknowledging that those people matter to God just as much as we do. It means challenging our deep and sometimes subconscious assumptions that people of color are less capable, or people who are poor are lazy, or people who are Muslim are terrorists, or people with accents don’t belong here.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it—the world, and those who live in it. Hannah acknowledges that God is, for lack of a better term, the “owner” of all things, and provides for us what we need. Sometimes what we need is a reality check, a glimpse of God’s kingdom truth. When we get it, God also provides us the courage to do something with that gift. Just as with every other gift God gives, it’s for a purpose. Hannah knew that the proper response to God’s providing was to give it back—she promised Samuel to God, to serve in the temple, and she took him there and left him to grow up to be the priest who changed the course of history. The same is true of less tangible gifts. God provides, and we are called to respond.

I hope that throughout this Harvest 2 season, as we consider the many different ways God provides, we will also consider what God calls us to do with what we are given. Whether that’s a gift of challenged assumptions, a gift of resources, a gift of talent or time—God’s purpose is the same: abundant life for all creation, to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. May we have the courage of Hannah and the openness of Eli, to participate in God’s great reversal until all know themselves beloved.

Amen.


Sunday, October 09, 2016

God Can't? -- a sermon on the golden calf fiasco

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
God Can’t?
Exodus 32.1-14
9 October 2016, NL3-5, H1-5 (In God We Trust)

When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses made several trips up the mountain to speak with God, receiving the ten commandments and many other laws and instructions for how the people should organize their lives as a religious, social, and economic community. The story we will hear today happens during the fourth trip Moses makes up the mountain, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights as God and Moses spoke. Among the instructions given to Moses on this occasion was the call for the people to make an offering of precious metals and stones and fabrics for the building of a tabernacle—a moveable temple where God could dwell with the people wherever they were—with its furnishings, the ark of the covenant, the priest’s clothes, and the altar. As God is finishing up giving the law and instructions and Moses is preparing to take the tablets down to the people, today’s story takes place. It is from Exodus chapter 32, and can be found on page 69 of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.


When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

“And the Lord changed his mind”—these are words we don’t hear often.
As we read the Bible in 90 Days this summer, it came up a few times, and each time it was a little bit of a shock to many. Before deciding the flood the earth, God regrets making humans on the earth…there are discussions between Abraham and God where God listens to Abraham and adjusts the course of action…and of course there’s the story of Jonah, where God reverses a decision and God’s ability to change makes Jonah angry. It makes us uncomfortable, to think of God changing God’s mind. Somewhere along the way, we decided that is impossible—God can’t do that.

As soon as we start uttering words like “God can’t do that” we should be getting nervous.

It’s one thing to say “the God we see in Jesus is like ____” or “in scripture we learn that God does ____.” It’s a whole other thing for us to claim what God can and cannot do.

One of the core tenets of the Reformed tradition, of which Presbyterians are a part, is the Sovereignty of God. We believe that God is free to order and rule creation according to God’s will, and we—who are not God—can’t restrict God. Which sounds so obvious when we say it out loud, and yet we are so uncomfortable with God’s ultimate and eternal freedom that we have placed all these bounds on how God should behave, when really the unchanging thing about God is Love—that is God’s nature, God’s essence. From that core reality, God is free to do whatever God will, including changing direction.

We are so used to metaphors like God is my rock and my fortress, the ground of being, the foundation, our refuge and strength…our hymns and our creeds describe God as eternal and unchanging…and we forget that is one side of a metaphor, one aspect that isn’t the whole story. We like our God to be stable and reliable, right there when we need someone to lean on, and not too demanding as we face a world that could never have been imagined by the writers of scripture.

Which is, in many ways, exactly what the newly freed Israelites wanted too. They had seen what God could do—witnessed plagues, crossed through the sea on dry ground, been fed by manna and quail, seen water gush from a rock, heard God’s voice rumble at the top of the mountain, and committed themselves to following God’s way. But now…Moses had been gone a long time, and they were getting antsy. This just wanted something more stable, more visible, more… unchanging.

It isn’t that they made themselves a new god, exactly. After all, they use the same liturgy—here is the god who brought you out of Egypt. It’s more that they made a static image to stand in for our dynamic God. Rather than give their offerings of gold and fine linen and precious jewels—as they had been called to—for a tent that would symbolize God living among them, they give them instead to capture what they want God to be, and hold on to that image they have built as if it is the real thing.

We often talk about how easy it is to find ourselves worshipping things that are not God—things like money, opportunity, power, fame, relationships, social status, nation, celebrity, sports, nostalgia. And that is true. We need to be aware of just what story our lives tell—where is our time and money and energy going, and how does that relate to following Jesus? But there’s another, far more insidious, form of idolatry that I think is shown by this story. It isn’t only about placing something other than God as the focus of our lives, it’s about solidifying what we think God should be and do into a statue we can carry around but will never change. We take the One true God, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer and sustainer, with all the complexity and possibility of love incarnate…and flatten it into something that works for us but bears little resemblance to the original. God cannot possibly be captured or contained in a stagnant medium, because God is the God of the living, always working for a new creation where everyone experiences abundant life, and because the promise “I will be your God and you will be my people” is always growing and flexing as the people’s lives change over time and travels.

That’s what Moses reminded God up on that mountain that day. “Remember the promise you made to Abraham and Sarah? Remember your relationship with Isaac and Rebekah? Remember the wrestling and blessing you did with Jacob, and the promise you made to all his sons and daughters? You are a God who keeps promises.” And God remembered…and changed God’s mind, choosing faithfulness over rejection, choosing mercy over judgment, choosing love. Because that is what God does…and what God is free to do, whatever we think of the choice.

This is good and beautiful news. It is also hard news, because it can be difficult to come to terms with the freedom and sovereignty of God when we are so bound to what we believe God is like and what Love means. When we have decided what God can and cannot do, who God can and cannot call, how God can and cannot love or save…we have made an idol—a false image that we have carefully shaped to be unchanging and predictable and reliable, something we think we can trust. Too often what is most reliable about this image is that it makes God out to value the same things we value, and to dislike the same things we dislike, and to love within the same boundaries we allow. But behind this image is a real, living God who won’t be trapped in our beliefs and words any more than God will be contained in a statue or a picture or a box or a tomb.

But it’s also hard because we do this same thing—flattening reality into ideologies we don’t question and refuse to believe can change—with other parts of life too.
We have hardened our conception of what it means to belong to a political party until we can’t see or accept when things have changed.
We have a pretty solidified image of our elected officials or candidates, insisting they are who we say they are, whatever evidence is available to the contrary.
We have turned sexuality and gender identity into a single image of predatory lust that makes it impossible to see multi-faceted human beings who long for love and acceptance.
We have dug in our heels and insisted racism and sexism are over and this is as far as we’re willing to go, and everything beyond this line is dismissed as “just being politically correct.”
We have claimed that there is just one meaning to the words “black lives matter” or “Muslim” or “refugee” or “Christian” or “pro-life” or “feminist” or “American” or “civil rights” or “freedom”…
the list goes on and on of ways our society, our churches, and each of us have solidified our limited understanding into a statue we can point to, insisting there’s no change to be had, that the bounds of our understanding of normal and good are also God’s. Our idols, just like the golden calf, provide a sense of comfort and stability, an illusion of control in a world where everything seems to be falling apart. And, like Jonah when God changed his mind about destroying Ninevah, we will have to come to terms with the fact that God doesn’t play by our rules, and that is actually good news—for us and for the whole world.

God is Love, and Love will not be bound by what we think God can and cannot do, and will not consent to live in the carefully constructed belief systems we have built. As 2 Timothy says, “the word of God is not chained.” Instead God asks us let go of our idols and join in the dance of doing a new thing. In God we trust, not because God can never change, but because our God is living and active, breathing life, creating community, feeding and healing, freely choosing to keep promises time and again, to be faithful and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, both ever-changing and ever-the-same—no matter what we think about that.


Thanks be to God. Amen.