One of the greatest gifts of my life has been to attend university.
As the first girl in my family to do so, I took to it like a duck to water.
In fact, I loved going to university so much, it became its own occupation!
Yes, it’s true, I became a ‘professional’ student for a very, very long time.
And, I must say, growing up in a Scots immigrant family, the post secondary education process served me very well as a bridge between adolescence and young adulthood as a Canadian.
By the time I had reached the age of 25 or so, my parents and friends were starting to get concerned.
And so was I.
Indeed, the proverbial biological clock was ticking and I recall many arguments with my mother, whose first priority for my life was that I would be married and have children.
So, while those years between high school and university completion might have seemed idyllic, in other ways they were years fraught with worry, confusion, chaos, and even misunderstanding as I came to adulthood in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s.
None of us need have worried, however.
As soon as I received my professional designation, I also met my husband and so it was that my other two life dreams of marriage and motherhood soon followed.
Little did I know that these were but the birth pangs of a new era being born.
For some of listening here, my story will make complete sense so linked as we are by gender and biology.
For others here, I recognize that my story may not fit at all with your experience.
Be that as it may, I offer this snapshot of my own life as a segue into our texts from scripture this morning.
Like the last two Sundays and our story from the Book of Ruth, our text this morning brings us face to face with another childless person named Hannah and several other biblical characters who round out the story.
There’s Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, who having already fathered numerous children with his other wife, Peninah, is much less concerned about Hannah’s childbearing capacity than she.
But that is of little comfort to Hannah whom we meet offering a prayer of lament to God in the Temple.
It’s a poignant prayer in which she fervently prays that she might become a mother.
You see, Hannah has worked herself into something of a state praying aloud in the sanctuary of the temple at Shiloh, not far from Jerusalem.
Here we come upon her in conversation with the Temple priest Eli who mistakes her fervent prayers as drunkenness.
Poor childless Hannah, so eager to fulfil the dream for her life’s purpose as a mother!
Dismissed first by her husband who minimizes her distress, and then Eli the Temple priest, Hannah must have felt very isolated and alone in her plight.
However, in keeping with the cultural norms and the context of this story from our ancient texts, Hannah’s patience, her endurance, and her reliance on God results in a dream come true-a baby named Samuel.
Little did Hannah know, in that moment, her actions were but the birth pains of a new era being born.
Overwhelmed with gratitude for being blessed with child, Hannah promises to dedicate the boy’s life to God.
And so it is, at the tender age of 3, Samuel goes to live with the priest Eli in the Temple at Shiloh.
From there, other great biblical characters and stories will emerge but for today as we celebrate Children’s Sunday, we stand in awe of this story about a vulnerable young woman named Hannah.
Hannah, representative of her culture and her context, offers us a model of faithful living based on gratitude and grace. Some of us will find her model compelling while others not so much.
Still it is what it is and we bring all that we are to the stories from our scripture canon.
The act of giving back to God all that we are and all that we have out of a place of abundant gratitude and grace also calls to mind last week’s story from Mark’s gospel, the story of the widow’s mite.
It’s the story of a very ordinary woman who gives everything she has into God’s tender care in the context of the Temple at Jerusalem, religious symbol of Jewish faithfulness but also, a site of much corruption.
This is where our text from Mark’s gospel and Jesus’ denouncement of the showiness of the religious leaders of the day picks up this morning.
Little did this ordinary woman know that her actions would be the birth pangs of a new era being born!
Today’s story begins innocently enough as Jesus and his friends make their way out of the glorious Temple.
Until that is, one of them makes an offhand remark about the enormous size of the stones undergirding the temple.
“Teacher”, he says, “What large stones and what large buildings!”
And in response Jesus has this to say: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”*
Jesus’ response predicting the very destruction of that which has taken a very long time to complete might seem almost ludicrous.
But he doesn’t stop there.
From there, Jesus’ tone turns even more ominous as he and the disciples make their way to the Mount of Olives where he predicts what many would call a doomsday scenario.
For those first followers, for the likes of Peter, James, John, and Andrew, Jesus’ such words about endings and new beginnings might cause them to feel renewed in their common purpose-after all, hadn’t they gladly signed on for the building of God’s peaceable reign, God’s kingdom where all would be welcomed, and where the last would be first? Hadn’t they eagerly signed on for Jesus’ mission to turn the world upside down so that it might, in fact, be turned right side up?
And so it is, the disciples come, thinking themselves prepared for what will happen once they reach their destination, the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Still, Jesus’ warning to beware false prophets, to not be alarmed by rancorous rumours of war, of nation pitted against nation, of natural calamities such as earthquakes, and famine coming to pass must have touched a raw nerve in them.
Further to that, his describing of these events as ‘but the beginning of the birth pangs’ must have not only underscored the drama of the moment, it would have left everyone feeling rattled and uncertain.
Just so, these texts continue to create a sense of foreboding even as we hear them again this day.
Little do we know or recognize about how our own actions, our own willingness to engage with the good news, might help launch the birth pangs of a new era!
We don’t have to look far in our own times to wonder about end times and new beginnings right here in our own community of faith, in the wider courts of the church, indeed in the whole of the United Church of Canada.
Of course, so much misunderstanding, miscommunication, and confusion in our everyday lives and relationships, so much need for persistence and endurance can feel overwhelmingly challenging.
All the more reason, we tell ourselves we must hold fast, make rigid that which should remain limber, and resist change at any cost.
Until that is, we remember Jesus’ words that the birthing of a new era is about to begin!
This morning, as we celebrate Children’s Sunday and as we anticipate hearing a word from our Outreach team about this year’s White Gift initiative during Trinity in Action, we are reminded that lo these 2000 years later we still have miles to go before we can rest easy.
We have miles and miles to go before we can say that children right here in the city of Vernon, children in the wider region, children around our country, and children’s needs in the wider world are being addressed as we might hope and dream.
Designating a day called Children’s Sabbath started back in the 1990’s in our denomination.
It’s importance continues to need to be brought before us so as to pause and reflect on the needs, concerns, interests, and skills of children in our own community, in the wider region, and around the world and to see how we might most effectively respond.**
Still, every journey begins with the first step and so it is, perhaps we can take hope that there is some good news in our gospel text this morning!
Perhaps we can learn to lean into and trust that our God is not but a decoration in the stories of our individual lives.
Perhaps we can learn to lean into and trust in the good news that our stories are part of the larger story that is God’s story and not the other way around.***
Or to paraphrase retired clergy and professor at Duke University, former Bishop Will Willoman, perhaps we can make space in our lives to accept that try as we may to divert God and one another, “God’s gonna have what God’s gonna have”. ****
To show up, be present, be persistent in our prayers, wait patiently and attentively, with curiosity, endurance, gratitude, and grace for all that God has done and will do for us in this time and in this place. And to say ‘yes’ when the time seems right. Why?
Because we know that these uncomfortable truths are but the birth pangs of a new era emerging!
For all of that and more, we say, Alleluia and may it be so, amen.
Rev. Elizabeth Bowyer reserves all rights © 2018.
You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.
Some of the impetus for this reflection is based on readings from
*Harper Collins Study Bible, New Standard Revised Version, p. 1943, Harper Collins Publisher, copyright, 1989
**Canada’s Sixth Child: A Service for Children’s Sunday, by Amy Crawford, Jackie Harper, and Jim Marshall, The United-Church of Canada, 2007
***The MESSAGE,THE BIBLE IN CONTEMPORARY LANGUAGE, Eugene H. Peterson, NAVPRESS, Bringing Truth to Life, www.navpress.com, p. 332, 2004
****www.asermonforeverysunday.com, podcast “The Temple is Coming Down” by Will Willoman
*****www.workingpreacher.org, November 18, 2018