SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRALof St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
(December 27th) 2015
Readings:1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Samuel’s story originates in the pain-filled piety of a young woman teased by a rival. In translation the name of the two wives of Elkanah, Samuel’s father, are “Fertile” and “Attractive.” Ms Attractive, Hannah, eventually experiences the delayed and perhaps miraculous conception after long enduring the taunts of her fertile co-wife. She is transformed from barrenness to the tender joy of birthing prophet Samuel. There is salvation here: the taunted if attractive woman Hannah had in her culture no reason to live but the bearing of children. God invades her life with blessing, and she bears the son by which she, in her culture, is redeemed.
Samuel grew up saturated in the dance of the faith that led his mother to cry out in pain for the only salvation she could know: a son. . The story of Samuel’s life is answer to Hannah’s faith that “the Lord raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” Hannah dedicated him to the service of God. She gave back to God what God had given her. For us, as we emerge from the complex web of a virally capitalist Christmas there is a message about receiving much, even much that is unnecessary, and giving much out in response.
Giving back to God is not necessarily or even often a pathway to the cosy happiness that is the stuff of coffee or chocolate ads on the giggle box. It is a journey into the inexpressible joys – and occasional frustrating challenges – of living and breathing in the context of God’s eternities, the infinities of divine love. It is an invitation to participate in a story that is both personal and cosmic, anchored in time and yet endless and far beyond time, far beyond finitude, and far beyond our comprehension.
We, as the author of Colossians sternly charges us, are called to enact that story in our lives. Colossians is a commission to love, to exemplary standards, even beyond-possible standards of love. It is that because that is what we have received in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. That is what we have celebrated liturgically these past few days: the coming of the eternity-transforming child into our world and our lives. As we were celebrating that we were celebrating the fact that our lives and the lives of those we love are not restricted to mere human experience but are caught up into the impossible eternities and eternal possibilities of God. The author of Colossians challenges us to be a people of exemplary love because that is what will attract others to the Way of the Cross, the inviting life and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus.
Colossians challenges us to reach beyond vacuous promises of coffee and chocolate ads to a far deeper level of love that will reach through barren heartache and brokenness and then reach out to touch and transform the lives of others. Hannah, trapped in the bitterness of her rival’s taunts, cries in prayer to God. She receives the child Samuel as an answer to that prayer, but the cycle does not end there: she creates of Samuel a life so Godwardly focussed that he repeats the cycle. He having been saturated in the enormity of God’s love and justice turns and becomes himself a conduit of God’s love and justice.
And so the story is perpetuated. We may not see our biological children dancing in the aisles of faith – though some do – but we may still reach out so much, so warmly to the community around us that those we embrace with our welcome and our worship and our hospitality and our justice are touched and embraced by the eternities of divine love. Jesus and Samuel are saturated in love. Our task is to generate a Christ-family so saturated and saturating in love that we act as a conduit to the eternities of God.How?
As the biblical authors knew well, the answers are not a kind of six-steps to conversion or join-the-dots to salvation or paint-by-numbers to gain eternity, nor are they the denial of needs for conversion or salvation or eternity. Nor are they bickering and backstabbing and complacent laisses-faire or indulgent narcissism and self-righteousness. Too easily we slip into senses of our own importance or greatness or even adequacy, when the witness of Samuel, of Jesus, of Paul and of others is that we are, except in the eyes of God and through the prism of Jesus, unimportant, small, and thoroughly unrighteous. Both Testaments are endlessly supplied with the texts and sayings of the prophets who addressed a self-satisfied people of God. Indeed, when you find Paul and his supporters encouraging his correspondents to “clothe themselves with love” it is almost always precisely because that is conspicuously what they are not doing. These are, as Phylis Tribble reminded us, texts of terror, and only after we embrace that stern critique can they become for us “comfortable words” of encouragement.
Quite simply, we are called to be a community of love. We become that by over and again exposing ourselves to the stern glare of a Creator-Redeemer God who reminds us that we are, in reality, the in-hospitable ones. We are the ones who turn away the desperate Mary, who laugh at the barren Hannah, and who crucify the love-dancing Jesus. We become a community of love, however imperfect and struggling, by over and again losing ourselves in the ecstasy of worship, seizure by the God of awe and majesty and might, an ecstasy of seizure like that of the psalm we recited; by losing narcissistic selfhood in the knowledge that we need Jesus; by losing self-assuredness in the knowledge that it is Jesus who touches and transforms our darkest fears and the sometimes even abhorrent inner recesses of our being, those darknesses that we barely admit to owning. We become a community of love by dancing ecstatically, like the psalmist, dancing with the Christ who picks us out of the gutters of indecency and not-good-enough-ness, then challenges us to invite others to our dance. That same Jesus holds us in warm, life-changing, self-transcending grace: he tells us to surrender the dark places, as well as the judgemental places, the critical places, the sclerotic, hardened places of our lives. He challenges us to become the embodiment of love that only he can make us.
As a cathedral people we are called to be transformed from Hannah the attractive but barren to Hannah the fecund, the fertile. Christ, you know it ain’t easy, sang John Lennon. This can become for us not a profanity, but a prayer, as we again ask Jesus to invade the barren and inhospitable chambers of our hearts and individually and collectively become a place of welcome to the seeking and embrace to the lonely. By the Spirit of Christ we can be enabled to open our hearts and our church to be a place where love is incubated in ridiculous, excessive, unrestricted generosity. That risky, mad generosity is the generosity of spirits invaded by the child who so puzzled Mary, the pondering mother. That mad, risky, generosity is the Way of the Cross to which we are called.