Monday, November 16, 2015

Leading from Our Joy

Leading from Our Joy
Rev. Douglas Olds
Fisherman’s Chapel by the Bay
Bodega Bay, CA
November 15, 2015

1 SAMUEL 1.4-20
 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 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. 8 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?”
9 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. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. 11 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.”
12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 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. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 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.
19 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. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the LORD.”

1 Samuel 2.1-10 The Song or Prayer of Hannah
 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.

    2      “There is no Holy One like the LORD,
    no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.
    3      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.
    4      The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
    5      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.
    6      The LORD kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
    7      The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low, he also exalts.
    8      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 honor.
    For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
    and on them he has set the world.

    9      “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.
    10      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.”

Distant is the past,
Deep, so deep:
Who can discover it?

The Bible is a thick book.
Not only does it have a lot of pages, each story and account is thick with background and foreground.  The background of a biblical story includes how it fits together with the historical and theological themes of each book of scripture. 
In our stories this morning of Hannah, the background theme of the Book of 1 Samuel moves the center of Israel’s worship from Shilo, where the Ark of the Covenant  had come to rest, to Jerusalem, which requires David to become king.
In our readings this morning, we encounter the mother and the birth of Samuel, who is to anoint David king of Israel—after which David brings the Ark to Jerusalem and centralizes worship there. Old cult centers like Shilo and its priests of Eli are disestablished in favor of David’s son’s Solomon’s temple and other priests. 
This is the historical arc and background to this mornings’ readings.
“Hannah occupies a space not unlike other women in Scripture who are raised out of the crowd for naming and narrative. She gestates and births a prophetic leader, and so attention is [directed] to her. Her story is [the background] for the construction of identity for Israel’s monarchy. It is a monarchy that finds its roots in despair, in barrenness, and in humble prayer. Because this story is of great importance for the character of Israel’s identity, [there are] [thick] metaphorical connections between Hannah’s barrenness and despair and the emotions of a nation that was looking for a leader, for a way to feel secure and hopeful in turbulent times.”[1]

In addition to these stories having thick backgrounds, they have thick foregrounds. 
The foreground to Biblical stories involves their theological interpretations and references through history. 
Preaching thickens these stories. 
In Hannah’s Song, we hear a foreshadowing of Mary’s Magnificat, where she sings out her joy at feeling the baby Jesus leap in her womb:
Luke 1. 46-53:
And Mary said,
    “My soul magnifies the Lord,
    47      and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
    48      for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
    49      for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
    50      His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
    51      He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
    52      He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
    53      he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

Hannah 1000 years earlier sang,
    “My heart exults in the LORD;
    my strength is exalted in my God….7      The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low, he also exalts.
    8      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 honor.
How alike these two songs of joy are. 
The 4th Century Saint John Chrysostom foregrounds Hannah’s tiny request for a baby by contrasting it with more worldly inducements: those politically ambitious men “suing and grasping for a kingdom” should be “ashamed” to remember Hannah, “praying and weeping for a little child:” A mother’s soft petition contrasted with the metaphors of warrior kingdoms.
As I’ve been claiming, there are thin descriptions and thick descriptions.
I can say to you, My name is Doug Olds, I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church who drove over from southern Marin to be with you this morning at your leader’s kind invitation. 
Or I can say to you another short description: I am Doug Olds, the oldest of three boys who grew up in one of the few liberal households in my very conservative and religious hometown. 
The second description is thicker: it gives more psychological background, my probable family dynamics, and it allows you the choice to make foreground judgments about me, thickening my story with you in all that follows.

Our song from Hannah this morning speaks of her exultation עָלַ֤ץ and joy שׂמח
“My heart exults עָלַ֤ץ in the LORD;
    my strength  קֶ֫רֶן is exalted רָ֥מָה in my God.” 
Hannah’s strength is enabled by her joy. Hannah is singing that her joy enables her strength through God. Like Mary, Hannah is laying down a principle of spiritual joy: that it follows that while God is infinite, that our joy may only increase in our relationship with God.
A joyous future awaits. 
That is both our hope and our source of gratitude for the initial “down payment” of joy we have received as Christians.
And as that joy enables Hannah’s strength, Hannah is leading from her joy in God’s grace.  She is not only leading from her personal story, regardless of how thick that story is.  Hannah is instead moving firmly and resolutely from the thickness of her joy.  She instead leads from her spirit—from the thickness of her joy in our relationship with God who has given her the victory.
Who has given us the victory to let us lead like Hannah led the Virgin Mary, providing her with a model of gratitude and joy—her expression of magnifying by her spirit the new incarnation of creation.

“In the Bible and in Christian teaching the word “God” is a power word. God [and God’s agents] are active, present and powerful in the world. …The Christian confessions speak of God as the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, the source and renewer of everything that exists. They speak of God as almighty ruler of the universe and of human history within it…, whose glory fills the whole earth, and whose saving purposes shall ultimately triumph in a divine consummation of all things. In any imaginable situation, God’s power is the transcending power by which the course of history is decided.”[2]
By contrast, Jonathan Sacks describes the false depth of 21st Century life as “the maximum of choice [mixed with] the minimum of meaning.” 
Joy gives power—a thickness of meaning to our future, and thus empowering our present. The energizing power of God comes to others through our joy and courage.
Such a thick text concerns a thick subject of joy from God’s enabling power leads off Hannah’s song.  As Miroslav Volf notes, “Joy is thicker than happiness, …Happiness is momentary, a fleeting feeling that is almost detached from our lived lives. Joy [on the other hand] involves judgment about the state of affairs that is somehow destined for the good.”
As Hannah’s Song links her joy with her strength, Joy becomes a principle of leadership.
    “My heart exults in the LORD;
    my strength is exalted in my God….
Hannah’s language of victory … celebrate[s] and magnif[ies] what this birth means for the whole community:
God stands for those who are excluded and oppressed.
The victory, in Hannah’s song, does not go to the one with the most military might.
The victory goes to God, who stands with and lifts up the people who are most marginal and left out of society.
God’s gift of a son for Hannah is not only a cause for Hannah’s personal celebration.
 Samuel’s birth has become a cause for all of Israel to celebrate, because, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,
“The birth is not a private wonder but a gift of possibility for all of Israel.”[3]//

It is how we lead ourselves and others, through judgement, on how and where the source of our joy would have us go.  That source of our joy, if we are Christians, is God.
Wendell Berry says, "Be joyful, though you have considered the facts." Berry, like Hannah, would have us prioritize the experience and source of our joy in all things.
Our joy is an unconditional gift, so that it is more firmly established than the endangerment of the life on earth around us.  When we discern the infinite and trustworthy source of our joy, we trust it more than the happiness we derive from changeable nature. 
Our bodies degrade, or nature decays around us, but we have been given the gift—the grace—of joy that enables us to know that something better awaits us in the future.
 Let us lead from that joy, not from the thick stories of our decay and disappointments of aging.  Let us lead from the joy that Hannah and Mary knew: there is even a greater joy that comes from the infinite that will never end.  Let us lead from that gift of joyous knowledge.
Joy is the taste of future grace.
One thin way to look at this might be good things come to those who wait.  For Chrysostom, the moral of the story is patience and providence.
The God who can bring a child to a woman who has been unable to conceive also “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 honor.”
Here the thickness of the history of interpretation and reference to these stories comes into view.  Joy, that thickest of emotions, provokes the thickest of historical concentration.  Joy is a taste of the future in the present and can only provoke discussion and speculation.  These are the thickest of texts, as joy is a thick emotion.  They lead us from the joy that these stories foretell.
One such story of thick joy smeared over the faithful countering the thickest moment of death, one’s life flashing before one’s eyes, were 4 naval chaplains who served the converted gunboat Dorchester in the northern Atlantic during WWII.
Methodist minister Reverend George L. Fox,
Reform Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Ph.D.),
Roman Catholic priest Reverend John P. Washington,
 and Reformed Church in America minister Reverend Clark V. Poling.
During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, at 12:55 a.m., the vessel was torpedoed by a German submarine. The 4 chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats, and then linked arms and, saying prayers and singing hymns, went down with the ship.
Grady Clark, survivor:
As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.
According to some reports, survivors could hear different languages mixed in the prayers of the chaplains, including Jewish prayers in Hebrew and Catholic prayers in Latin.[4]
They led frantic men from a joy in God’s living future, not from that thickest moment of death’s despair. Rather than focusing on their lives flashing before their eyes, they sang hymns and doxologies of joy.  They led from joy.
At crisis and death and the challenges of life, may it be so for you and me.  AMEN.

[1] Shoop, M. M. (2009). Theological Perspective on 1 Samuel 1:4–20. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 4, p. 290). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
[2] Parker, T. D. (2009). Theological Perspective on 1 Samuel 2:1–10 (The Song of Hannah). In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 4, p. 298). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
[3] Connors, K. F. (2009). Pastoral Perspective on 1 Samuel 2:1–10 (The Song of Hannah). In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 4, p. 298). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
[4] accessed on 12 November 2015.

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