Sincere Gratitude and Response – November 14

A sermon based on I Samuel 1:4-20

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 14, 2021

by Rev. Scott Elliott

I read that a man searching for a perfect community of faith came to see Charles Spurgeon the famous 19th century British preacher.  Pastor Spurgeon reportedly told the man that there were many saintly people in his congregation but a Judas could also be found among them– after all, Spurgeon noted, even Jesus had a traitor in the company of his disciples. The great preacher went on to point out that some in his church might be walking disobediently as had been the case among believers at the the earliest churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia and Sardis. “My church is not the church you are looking for, “ said Spurgeon, “But if you should happen to find such a church, I beg you not to join it, for you would spoil the whole thing.” 1

A funny thing about churches that they don’t really teach in seminary is that unlike every other organization run by humans a surprising number of people expect them to be perfect.  No one goes to a golf club, or a social club or a college or even a restaurant expecting perfection. But at church it happens.  Which is ironic since churches are pretty up front about going out of the way to bring in the imperfect. Right? Not only are broken people invited and welcomed, but life is messy and even those not in a broken state can and do experience broken-ness along the way.  Life is messy and people are imperfect – and churches tend to both.

Expecting any place to be perfect is unusual, expecting a church or faith community to be perfect is to misunderstand what faith communities are about.  In the Gospels the people we are told Jesus helped and taught and brought into his fold all had messy issues. His work was about loving others – flaws and all–  by providing justice and kindnesses while he humbly walked with God in community with others. That’s what faith communities are still supposed to be about.

The New Testament is not about providing a perfect place or perfect people or perfect leaders. The Old Testament is not about that either.  The book of Micah in Chapter 6 states there are only three things God requires of us–and not one of them is perfection, not one of them is be mistake free.  The three things are to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.  That’s what faith communities in the Judeo-Christian  traditions are required to strive for.

I sat down with today’s Lectionary text a few weeks back to see what might leap out at me for use today, our Stewardship Sunday. I was pleasantly surprised at how much connection this story about Hannah has to annual stewardship.  The story takes place during the time of Hannah’s family’s trek to the House of God to make annual offerings to God!

So that members of the house of God are feeling thankful and generous, ideally you’d think the day of the offering would be pitched as going well for the person highlighted as giving, and that the other people who belong to the House of God would be nice to her, especially the leader of the faith community she encounters there. We sort of expect a perfect-like ethos pitch about the faith community at such a time.  But that’s not how the story is set up for poor Hannah.  She’s been led to believe by members, and presumably some leaders,  of the faith that God’s cursed her womb and made it barren, probably as some sort of punishment.  We are also told that her co-wife – who is also a co-member of the faith– has been ruthlessly bullying her for being barren and cursed by God and no doubt telling her she deserved that as a punishment.

So, Hannah, deep in sorrow and pain from the lack of children and the bullying, and mistakenly assuming God’s disapproval,  goes to the House of God in desperation sobbing and weeping.  In God’s house she seeks refuge and help and understanding, and most of all a child to end the bullying and terrible sense of worthlessness and shame the culture has made her feel.   She is at the end of her rope.  Life for everyone is messy, and sometimes terribly messy–and we find Hannah in just such a terrible state.  And we also find her doing what we hope people in such a dire situation will do,  get to the House of God for refuge and help and understanding.

But we learn that even their life is messy, that faith communities are not perfect. At first Hannah seems to at last be in luck because Eli, the great high priest and judge is there in the shadows listening. We are sure he’ll come to the rescue. But his first move is to fail her too.  In fact,  he fails pastoral care 101, treating her with disdain, mistaking her for being intoxicated and disruptive instead of a woman in deep despair.  Like the rest of humankind,  the religious leader– one of the greatest ever at that– is imperfect.  IF Eli and his community of faith are not perfect, no other faith leader or faith community can be perfect . . . Nor should we expect them to be.

Even so, the story’s bottom line is: God can and does work through faith communities. The community doesn’t have to be perfect to per-fect God’s work. Indeed the “in our face” message is God works in and through  imperfections, provided . . . provided,  the members and leaders of the faith community who are seeking and providing help are sincere in their efforts to experience God and provide experiences of God. The sign of sincerity can be found in their gratitude and response to the faith community’s actions as God’s agents.

Hannah is grateful and content after Eli provides her with care and prayer and a blessing, it is not until later that she becomes pregnant.  She is no longer sad and begins to eat before then too. She makes her promise of offerings to God before then as well.  The offerings are not payments for answers to prayers, but for the goodness, and promise of goodness, provided by God’s presence in, and through,  a faith community.  Hanna’s responses are not just to get things, but to facilitate the existence of goodness and the promise of goodness– the seeking of justice and loving of kindness humbly walking with God. See offerings make the community of faith possible, and the goodness and the promises and experiences of God in and through it.

Offerings create a place where God’s presence can be experienced in sight and sound and word and deed– and yes, even in people of faith as flawed as they might be.  The past few weeks we have heard and read about the many ministries and missions of THIS faith community, the goodnesses and promises of goodness provided by God’s presence in and through it. They exist because members and friends of this faith community are sincere in their efforts to experience God and provide experiences of God.  The sign of sincerity is found in all of our gratitude and responses to  Mount Vernon First Congregational Church’s actions as God’s agents.

May we always show such sincerity. May we always be a part of God’s work and in God’s presence.  It matters much. You matter much. AMEN.

 

ENDNOTES:

  1. Morgan, Robert, Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Sermon Illustrations, p 123

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