Praise the Holy One – Giving Back the GiftPosted: November 18, 2012
Infertility can be a tragic unbearable sadness in the life of a woman. I have to readily admit as a man, and my guess is many other men, don’t get it. In our modern western world we spend so much time and effort trying to avoid conception it is hard for me to understand just our awesomely tragic infertility can be. Sort of like the old joke about young men who sow their wild oats on Saturday night and then go to church on Sunday morning to pray for a crop failure. But when I witness the great lengths to which couples will go to conceive and give birth to their own children, then I do intellectually understand that infertility is experienced as a terrible burden. Perhaps the key is to try to understand that child bearing is part of our DNA. Our species would not have survived without it. And many women on a visceral level feel an urge to satisfy the call to motherhood. In a culture that valued women as the producers of the next generation, the first line of defense against the extinction of the tribe, the call to motherhood was overwhelming. And then if we add to the cultural mix the need to produce many sons to serve as warriors for the protection of the tribe, we can perhaps understand the high status of women who gave birth to sons.
Of course modern cultures like China and India that practice female infanticide, because they over value male off-spring are running into trouble because they end up with an oversupply of men and not enough women. In a world where brains rather than brawn have become a society’s most important asset favoring males over females is a recipe for disaster.
Poor Hannah had been unable to conceive. The assumption was always that the woman was barren, rather than that the man was shooting blanks. So Elkanah took a second wife Penninah. Actually the custom of taking more than one wife, in that culture was an attempt to be compassionate and also insure the survival of the tribe. Because of the higher mortality of males, there was always a greater supply of women than men. Thus single women were given a protector and provider, and the tribe could put perfectly good breeding stock to work in order to insure the survival of the clan. When Penninah immediately produced a gaggle of children upon marrying Elkanah, Hannah’s barrenness was confirmed. She was in the eyes of her culture defective.
Even though the custom of having more than one wife provided for the left over women and kept the tribe alive, there were problems with the practice – jealousy. Penninah seems to have been jealous of the affection shared by Elkannah and Hannah. The text tells us that Elkannah always gave Hannah a double portion in order to assure her that she was uppermost in his affections. After all who wants to be considered the “second wife” a heifer for breeding purposes. Hannah was also jealous of the attention Elkanah may have paid to Penninah. After all you don’t produce a gaggle of children without spending time with someone.
Hannah was in such deep distress she turned to God. When Elkanah took the family to Shiloh to offer sacrifice Hannah prayed before the Ark of the Covenant. She prayed so fervently the High Priest and keeper of the Ark believed she was drunk, and he scolded her. But when Hannah opened her heart to Eli he perceived her authenticity and gave her a blessing that the story seems to credit with Hannah then conceiving a son. In her joy Hannah also swore an oath that if God would give her a son, she would give the son back to God. And perhaps this is why the lectionary scheduled this passage during Stewardship season. Hannah was justified by God’s gift of a son. Midrash goes on to enlarge upon the story claiming that Hannah then had several more children. But Hannah was willing to give back the gift in order to honor her promise to God.
Perhaps the story of Hannah can lead us to ask ourselves, what are we willing to give back to God in return for all the blessings we have received? Perhaps the first challenge is to acknowledge our blessings. So many of us receive God’s blessings and take them for granted without ever expressing gratitude. As we consider acknowledging our blessings let me share a devotion by Martin Copenhaver on Psalm 128. Martin is the Pastor of the Wellesley Congregational Church, where Tom Edwards attended while he was living in Boston.
So much of our scripture is a celebration of abundance. The first chapters of Genesis are a song of praise for God’s generosity. With each act of creation, the divine refrain is, “It is good, it is good, it is very good.” And it pictures the Creator saying, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Many of the Psalms, including the one for today, survey creation and catalogue this abundance in loving detail and with joyful thanksgiving.
Then, in the Gospels, Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes so that there is more than enough for everyone. At a wedding feast he turns water into wine, and more wine than could be consumed at a dozen weddings. These highly symbolic stories speak of God’s abundance. There is enough, there is more than enough. That’s the biblical narrative. But the narrative by which we are tempted to live is another story entirely, a story of scarcity, where there is never enough. In fact, we are tempted to define enough as, “always something more than I have now.”
Abundance or scarcity how do we behave? Around the Sharing Table on Thursday nights in October we were talking about the practice of gratitude. One of the authors we studied was a Benedictine Monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast.
Gratefulness can be improved by practice. But where shall beginners begin? The obvious starting point is surprise. You will find that you can grow the seeds of gratefulness just by making room. If surprise happens when something unexpected shows up, let’s not expect anything at all. Let’s follow Alice Walker’s advice. “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”
To expect nothing may mean not taking for granted that your car will start when you turn the key. Try this and you will be surprised by a marvel of technology worthy of sincere gratitude. Or you may not be thrilled by your job, but if for a moment you can stop taking it for granted, you will taste the surprise of having a job at all, while millions are unemployed. If this makes you feel a flicker of gratefulness, you’ll be a little more joyful all day, a little more alive.
Once we stop taking things for granted our own bodies become some of the most surprising things of all. It never ceases to amaze me that my body both produces and destroys 15 million red blood cells every second. Fifteen million! That’s nearly twice the census figure for New York City. I am told that the blood vessels in my body, if lined up end to end, would reach around the world. Yet my heart needs only one minute to pump my blood through this filigree network and back again. It has been doing so minute by minute, day by day, for the past 75 years and still keeps pumping away at 100,000 heartbeats every 24 hours. Obviously this is a matter of life and death for me, yet I have no idea how it works and it seems to work amazingly well in spite of my ignorance.
When we open ourselves to surprise and cultivate gratitude we begin to live out of God’s abundance. We start appreciating what we do have and stop worrying over what we do not have. We become generous with the gifts God has bestowed upon us, rather than grasping and hoarding resources in a desperate attempt to acquire stuff we do not need, or a sense of security that can never be satisfied until we learn to trust in God.
What gift are we willing to give back to God? What return can we make for all the blessings we have received? Many of us are beginning to fret over whether the Stewardship Drive will raise enough money. Let me share a story with you.
Tony Campolo is a college professor and a noted advocate for missions and evangelism. He tells of being invited to speak at a women’s meeting. There were 300 women there. Before he spoke the president of the organization read a letter from a missionary. It was a very moving letter expressing a need for $4,000 to take care of an emergency that had arisen. So the president of the organization said, “We need to pray that God will provide the resources to meet the need of this missionary. Dr. Compolo, will you please pray for us?”
Tony who is very outspoken said, “No.”
Startled, the woman said, “I beg your pardon.”
Tony said, “No, I won’t pray for that.” He said, “I believe that God has already provided the resources and all we need to do is give. Tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to step up to this table and give every bit of cash I have in my pocket. And if everyone here will do the same thing, I think God has already provided the resources.”
The president of the organization chuckled a little bit and said, “Well, I guess we get the point. You are trying to teach us that we all need to give sacrificially.”
Tony said, “No, that is not what I am trying to teach you. I’m trying to teach you that God has already provided for this missionary. All we need to do is give it. Here, I’m going to put down all of the money I have with me.” So he took out the $35 he had in his wallet then looked at the president of the organization. Reluctantly, she opened her purse and took out all of her money, which was about $40, and put it on the table. One by one the rest of the ladies filed by and put their money on the table, too. When the money was counted they had collected more than $4,000.
Tony Campolo said, “Now, here’s the lesson. God always supplies for our needs, and he supplied for this missionary, too. The only problem was we were keeping it for ourselves. Now let’s pray and thank God for what God has provided.”
Friends, God has provided all of the resources United Church needs to perform the mission in the world God is asking us to do. The resources have already been given. The resources are in our pockets. Is the church alive or is it dead? It’s in our hands. It’s in our hands.