Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"A Very Human Book": Hannah's Song and Reading the Bible

This sermon was delivered on 18 November 2012 by our Micah Fellow, Tiffany Curtis. The readings for the day are available here
In our readings today we hear Hannah struggle with her sense of anguish and distress over her lot in life. She is irritated, provoked, weeping, praying. She won’t eat. She is so immersed in her grief that Eli believes her to be drunk. 15But Hannah answers, ‘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.’ Eli tells her that she should go in peace, for God will grant her petition. Hannah indeed becomes pregnant—the desire of her heart, according to the scriptures—and she gives birth to the prophet Samuel.
Then come the famous words of the Song of Hannah, echoed in the gospel of Luke in the Song of Mary. Hannah sings a song primarily of joy. It is triumphant, and also full of energy and complex images and emotions. It speaks of justice for those who have been forgotten, neglected, marginalized. It gives glory to God for lifting up the oppressed. And it also states clearly that this joy and justice is in opposition to others, that it is defined by its opposite…
Hannah says: my mouth derides my enemies, their bows are broken, they are without jobs or food, they are forlorn. Those who were full of food will go hungry, the rich will be poor. The wicked shall be cut off in darkness, and God’s adversaries shattered…This is not just some feel-good love song to God. This is a complicated text, and like much of scripture, we are invited to sort out what it might mean for us in our lives.
Particularly thinking about the experience many of us have just had, of working together with other people of faith so that the hungry might be fed, these texts sound a little incongruent to my ear. I just worked for 2 hours side-by-side with people of many nations, skin colors, faiths--including a faith in reason and humanity rather than a faith in God. And now I come to church and I hear that those who are not like me, those who in biblical times might even have been called my enemies--deserve my scorn and the wrath of the Lord.
We have a few options. We can accept this book as the literal Word of God, including the parts we don’t like, and perhaps dig in and explore some of the darker aspects of God as portrayed in scripture. I think this merits much more reflection than it is ever given in more liberal Christian contexts, where the love of God is emphasized above all else. But that’s not what I am going to explore tonight. We can also spiritualize this kind of thing and view it metaphorically: crushing our enemies can mean the enemy forces within us, the complexities and darkness that we find within ourselves, those tendencies that threaten to pull us away from our truest selves, from our faith. An internal struggle. This sort of allegorical reading of the Bible can be extremely beneficial, and has a noble history in Christianity, particularly pre-Enlightenment. But I am not going to go into that approach either.
What I do want to talk about is something that has been so present in my heart since one of the brothers at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist preached last month on the psalms. He said that the psalms are powerful because they hold the full range of human emotions, including joy and including murderous rage. And that by delving into the psalms together we are acknowledging the breadth of human experience, and honoring emotions that might not be our own. This resonated with me so much because one of things I have always loved about the Bible is how darn contradictory it is. It offers different accounts of stories side-by-side, and shows us the lives of faithful heroes and moral idiots alike, sometimes in the same person. The Bible has always seemed like a very human book to me, and that’s much of what makes it holy for me. We humans have been struggling to relate to the divine and to each other for millennia, and much of that struggle is depicted so colorfully and beautifully in our scriptures. That means that we find parts of the Bible that can be hard to swallow, mixed right in with incredibly moving images of Godly and human justice and compassion. We find the deliciously erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs in the same book that we find stories of mass rape and murder, of men betraying their own brothers.
In our world, too, in a single moment you can observe a couple hand in hand in Harvard Square, obviously rapturously in love, and then almost trip over someone who has lost a limb, whose face is red and blotchy from exposure to sun and cold, and whose hand is outstretched, a thin paper cup held between nicotine-stained fingers, and whose defeated eyes look at you imploringly. This is the nature of reality. The complexity, the contrast, the both/and is what it means to be a human being!
The simple ways of reading the texts of our lives, of reading the holy texts we have been given by our ancestors, is usually not the most compelling. It’s not compelling because it flattens an inherently bumpy topography. It ignores shadows and wrinkles and scars. It refuses to see reality as it really is.
This week I was at dinner with a really fascinating group of women, including two psychologists. Pam, who does mindfulness work as part of her psychotherapy practice, shared that a psychologist had done a study on survivors of the Holocaust who had thrived in their lives even after surviving death camps. This researcher wanted to know what traits these survivors shared that made this possible. According to Pam, what she found was that they all saw reality as it was. In other words, they were clear-eyed about reality.
I wonder if engaging fully with scripture as it really is can help us practice engaging life as it really is, including the things that we don’t like, including the most painful traumas of our lives. Scripture reflects the complexity of the human experience, and reading it with clear eyes might just help us to be clear-eyed as we move about our society, as well.
In the gospel reading for today, the disciples ask Jesus about how they will know that “things are about to be accomplished.” His response is that they should be wary of people who claim to be him, and to not be alarmed by the news of famines, wars, earthquakes, because these are just the beginning of the birth pangs of what is to come. Once again, this isn’t a Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know Jesus, but a more intense Jesus, warning against people who will lead his disciples astray, warning of catastrophes and tragedies. Following this theme of clear-eyed vision of complex reality, Jesus is essentially telling his disciples just that. He is saying, accept reality as it is, be alert to the complexity of these times. Jesus is saying that God is somehow mysteriously present even in earthquakes and famine and war.
Indeed, somehow God is present in this mad swirling mass of humanity and chaos and stars and dark matter and fish and trees and roaring waters and loneliness. God defies our expectations. God defies our knowing. God defies our sense of time and place and order.
And in that dizzying sense of life’s complexity, in the ways it is reflected in the scriptures, in our friends and family, in our intimate relationships, in our yearning to do good in this world…we have the invitation to accept reality as it is, which includes the possibility of what it could be. Reality as it is includes hope. We have the capacity to come together—hundreds of people in a university hall operating an interfaith assembly line to feed folks, knowing that we are only making a small difference in people’s lives—just one meal, and yet that is a sign of hope!
As the poet Emily Dickinson says, “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.”  If we can stop one heart from breaking. If we can feed one family in Boston. We shall not live in vain. No matter how great the problems of this world, no matter how complex our human experience, no matter how dark our scriptures, if we have enough love for life to see it as it really is, we have enough to hope. We are not living in vain. We have cause to sing alongside Hannah: My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God!

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