Sermons That Work

A Recent Bestseller…, Proper 4 (A) – 1996

March 17, 1996

A recent bestseller posed the notion that everything one needs to know is learned in kindergarten. We can carry that a step farther and say that everything one needs to know about God can be learned from kindergarteners or from those a few years before or after that age level. Jesus said that we have to become like children to enter the kingdom of God. It also helps our understanding to just listen to them.

One of my own children said to me, “I have to be bad so that you will know when I am being good.” There is perfect sense in that statement and is the kind to which a parent is unable to respond. We could ponder what it says about the concept of original sin.

A four year old and her mother walked on a hillside as a stiff summer breeze bent the grasses and Black-eyed Susans into bowing toward the east. The child observed, “The flowers are bowing. I think they are praying.” The mother allowed as to how this was a possibility. The child went on, “They are all pointing one way. That must be where God is.”

“God is hugging us all the time.” “Prayer time is like the door we go through to stand next to God.” “Ears are no good if there is nothing to listen to. God has ears!” “We don’t HAVE to ask God for anything because He knows everything already. But, when we say it out loud, God knows that maybe we know that He is there and God likes that.”

The preceding messages were brought to you courtesy of many years of listening to the profound theology of children and coming to the realization that adults tend to make God-talk about theology and prayer much more complicated than it needs to be. Children also have more insight into God’s response to prayer as a way to self-reveal. They don’t need to be convinced that God answers prayer and, therefore, God exists. They know that God loves all created beings and that God is just waiting to be contacted. Children around kindergarten age take Bible stories seriously and would have great empathy with the misery of a Hannah or a man born blind. A child of faith might say to either of these people, “It will be all right. God knows what you need. Just wait a little longer. It will be all right.”

Oh, Hannah, just wait a little longer.

It is an interesting exercise to make a study of women in the Bible and the ways in which they advance the Salvation Story, have impacts on the histories of their families, influence the politics of the times, cause problems, or relate to God. Hannah is not unusual. She has been assigned a place in life and history which bears similarities to other Old Testament stories. We know of other childless women who are tormented by fertile other wives, concubines, or servant girls. Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob, have a veritable reproductive competition. Sarah is aged before she is able to give Abraham a son. The status of a woman in Old Testament times was very much connected to the production of children and a woman not a mother was low in the social order.

The passage from 1 Samuel gives insights into the family of Elkanah the Zuphite. There are two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Hannah is childless, Peninnah has sons and daughters. Hannah is loved by her husband even though her womb is closed.

The family has a healthy ritual life with trips to Shiloh for prayer and sacrifice and there was enough wealth in the home to support the trips. The two wives and all of Peninnah’s brood are included. These trips went on year after year marked by the tormenting of Hannah by Peninnah and by Hannah’s weeping which even the profession of love by her husband could not stop.

What kind of a life did Hannah lead? There would have been daily reminders of her failure. Did she love children for their own sakes? Did she spend time with her husband’s children and participate in their nurture, tell them stories, praise their successes, and comfort them when frightened or injured? The emptiness of her arms and her own sorrow would have been magnified by her wish to please her husband. Her ego would have been damaged by the slights from society and the knowledge that her place in the history of her tribe was negligible until the arrival of a child – her child.

Perhaps she kept the longing to herself until the annual trip to Shiloh, the place of worship and sacrifice. The passage says, “year by year.” Hannah’s identity dissolved into the longing. It became the focus of all that she was. The despair had plenty of time to grow. She put up with a lot, “year by year”; the taunting of her rival and the belittling of her feelings by a husband who seemed to think that his presence should be enough to satisfy her.

We can guess that Hannah prayed, “year by year.” By the time of our story, by the time of this particular trip to Shiloh, Hannah has been brought low. The words are, ” deeply distressed…wept bitterly….misery…deeply troubled.” She asks Eli to not consider her, “a worthless woman.” Hannah pours out her soul before the Lord. Hannah is emptied. Her lips move but,”her voice was not heard.” Emptied she was – even of speech. She makes vows to God, promising the life of the child for which she is pleading as a special sort of dedication as a Nazirite.

Hannah had heard throughout her life that the only worthwhile role of a woman was that of a mother. She was deeply aware of the stigma which a sterile woman bore. She was reminded daily by the presence of the children of Peninnah and by the taunts of the other woman. She was patronized as she was loved by her husband. Hannah, “presented herself before the Lord,” and poured out her soul.

And…then…Eli speaks: “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.’ and her countenance was sad no more.”

God was revealed. Hannah knew the revelation to the depths of her being, to the depths from which the sorrow came and where the pain was born. There was assurance, there was peace, there was safety. Hannah had been brought low and now was lifted up, She went to her quarters and shared a meal with her husband and went on living and, eventually, Samuel is born and loved and, as she promised, given to God.

“Don’t cry,” a child will say to an adult. “Everything will be all right.” This isn’t empty rhetoric. The child really means it. A child would have no problem with the story about Hannah. Of course, she felt better. God was there to handle everything. Of course, Hannah would have a child. She prayed about it, didn’t she? Hannah had a huge problem – an overwhelming one. It took divine intervention to solve and the confidence in the solution was a revelation to Hannah. Our first parents heard God walking in the Garden. We have to look for God a bit harder – like Hannah did. And God, as to Hannah, is revealed to us as a result of prayer.

John doesn’t tell us that the blind man was praying or expecting a miracle to happen. Jesus is walking along. The disciples are with him and use the encounter with the blind man as the basis for a philosophical discussion on how the man got to be that way. Born blind – there must be a reason and it must have to do with sin. Whose sin – the man’s, or, his parents’? Up to now the anonymous blind man’s life is without consequence. It is after the healing that he becomes significant. God’s works are revealed in him.

The drama of the tale is especially quaint. There he sat, minding his own business and, seemingly uninvited, someone whom, of course, he cannot see, spreads mud on his face. Having been made dirty, he is told to go to the Pool of Siloam to wash. We aren’t told if he expected the result of the action. We can imagine his posture at the side of the pool. He may have knelt on the pavement with his stick by his side. He might have been bent over the water as he splashed it up onto his face, rubbing a little to loosen the mud as it dried. As it flaked away, bits would have fallen into the pool and dissolved into the water. His eyes opened. Perhaps, the first thing he saw in his life was his own reflection in the waters of the pool as it rippled from his disturbance of the water. He, “came back able to see.” And, then, a life spent in simple darkness became very complex. All of a sudden he was an interesting person.

We are not told who took the sighted man to the Pharisees, but, some busy body thought the Pharisees ought to know, what with the healing being on the Sabbath and all. There was no awe. There was no glory given and no Thanksgivings. There was only questioning and accusations. The sighted man found himself defending the giver of the gift to upholders of the law whose hearts were closed. The focus was on the doer of the miracle, who he was, and the source of his power. The sighted man’s frustration is palpable. “Here is an astonishing thing.” He did not back down from the intense interrogation.

We are not told about the time taken up by this story. We don’t know if a few hours passed between the healing and the next encounter with the healer. There was time for the news to travel through the city streets. The sighted man is driven from the synagogue. Jesus hears about it and comes searching,…”and, when he found him, he said,’Do you believe in the Son of Man?'” The revelation is now complete with the answer, “Lord, I believe.” The relationship of the Son of Man and the man newly sighted is profoundly personal. The healing set the healed apart from the crowd, from the synagogue, and, even from his parents. But, he had all that he needed and, “he worshipped him.” God incarnate had revealed love and mercy and peace.

We live within that incarnation and there are moments in our frenetic lives when that same love and mercy and peace break through. Michaelangelo spoke of the art of sculpture as the removal of the marble, chip by chip, which encloses the form already residing within the stone. We, too, are encased by stone made up of sins large and small, of commission and omission. God has given us the grace through Christ to chisel away the impurities and the season of Lent as a time marked to search for the true self which lives within the stone. “Sleeper, awake!” Blind man, see! Hannah, be glad!

Hannah is touched by God and goes home to a meal with her husband. A man born blind is cured and accepts the miracle with the simplicity of a faith which does not question. A child is able to pray for mercy for a brother who caught the large fish which lies on a platter in the middle of the supper table and who, therefore, is guilty of murder. A child wiggles through all of the readings in the darkened church during an Easter Vigil. And, then, the altar bells ring, the glorias are sung, there is illumination, and the child cries out, “JESUS IS BACK.” “You don’t need to leave the light on tonight, mother. God can find me in the dark.” “Why does God have his own house? Can’t we take him home with us?”

Lord, make us ever mindful of your presence. Fill our emptiness as you did that of Hannah.. Give us the grace to have hearts illumined as are the hearts of children. Strengthen us to live as children of the light with a new vision. Let that vision see your presence in all the moments of our lives. Let not the stone be hard, nor, found hollow. And, then, at the end of life, grant us the final, glorious revelation. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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