Sunday, October 18, 2020

Paula Stoltzfus: What song are you singing?

“God honors the lowly”
Luke 1:46-55; 1 Samuel 1:9-11; 19-20; 2:1-10

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I enjoy listening and singing along to music. Right now, music is even more necessary to find spaces when it can be played. I like listening when I’m working in the kitchen and moving around with the rhythm.  Music so easily releases stress, expresses emotions, and connects me to the world around me. Making music is so rich and full of meaning.  

I have a deep appreciation for those who are able to compose songs matching the words to notes. It is a gift when the music matches my soul’s longings.

Hannah seemed to be able to match her words in this ancient poem with her soul’s song.

Hannah is one of two of Elkanah’s wives. The other wife mocked and degraded Hannah for not having any children.  They lived in a patriarchal society in which a woman’s value and identity was linked with whether she bore not just children, but specifically a son.  A son would ensure that she would be cared for in her old age.

The context surrounding Hannah finds growing dissent within the Israelites wanting to change their leadership to match those around them, which relied on monarchies for leaders. This would give them clearly defined leaders for the long-term instead of a cyclical pattern of Judges who would emerge as leaders in times of crisis.  

Eli and his two sons are mentioned as priests who carried out the religious roles. The sons are spoken of as corrupt and devious. They were actively abusing their powers as the people sought to be faithful to God.

Within this cultural milieu, Hannah found herself very alone.  She had a husband who didn’t understand, a co-wife who mocked her, a faith community that highlighted her lack of value (communal events highlighted the fact that she didn’t have any kids), and a priest, who in her hour of prayer accused her of being drunk.  

But Hannah was a woman of faith. She cried out to God in her deep sorrow and need doing what we sometimes do, bargaining that if God would give her a son, she would give him back into God’s service.

In our gospel text, we find another time when the culture is in turmoil.  A young engaged, virgin, Mary, is approached by an angel to bear God’s son.  She ran to her aunt's place to seek refuge.  Upon entering and receiving a hearty welcome, Mary sings a song we return to year after year, usually in advent. But listening to her prayer in the context of Hannah’s prayer is a reminder that Mary is one of other women in the Bible who are an integral part of God’s salvation story.

It’s as if these songs are singing God’s way into being. Those on the margins are raised in value in God’s kingdom.  Those with privileges are humbled.  Those that are hungry in body and soul are filled.  Those whose stomachs and pantries are full find the storeroom of their spirits empty.  Those without power are equipped with a power of faith.  Those with earthly power lead with a false power that easily fades.

Hannah’s worth couldn’t come from her earthly community. It was her faith in  God which allowed her to go to the depths of her vulnerability and pain, seeking healing.  In time, she experiences the presence of God in her life that allows her to see God’s work with different eyes.  She lives into understanding the upside-down nature of God at work, raising up the powerless, bringing down the powerful and so offers her only son at the time, into God’s service.

Last week I was able to listen to a PBS documentary on Howard Thurman, an African American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader who grew up in the far south in FL in the early 1900’s.  He was profoundly shaped by a repeated mantra his preacher in his early years ended every sermon by saying, “you are not _____, you are a child of God.”  Thurman returned to that phrase over and over as he grew and developed his own self worth.  To have those words repeated, that no matter what others called him, he was first a child of God, profoundly shaped his identity.

This is God’s redemptive spirit at work in the world and in our lives.  You are a child of God, valued, accepted, and loved.  When you or I stand internally from this place, grounded in God’s love, the things of this world, power, wealth, and identity begin to shift in their worth.

Both of our texts are encased in troubled times, where two women cry out to God from their depths. Out of these cries come songs of God’s revolutionary work and gracious providence.

We live in a time where we are offered every bit of information that we could ever want (or not), from politics to pandemic, natural disasters to demonstrations. It can seem like no matter what news source we turn to there is turmoil, devastation, abuse of power, producing layers upon layers of anxiety.

That is the world around us.  On top of our work and demands on our relationships around us; on top of continuing to navigate our health and well-being where we are constantly calculating our moves and practices. It is the mounting layers that can press in on every side.  Hope can seem elusive.

Perhaps that is the magic of music.  It can take us a world away.  Lift our spirits, we often say.  When we sing our songs of faith we lament, we praise, we sing God’s way into being, shaping our hearts and minds.

We need to remind ourselves that we are not defined by our skin color, but by being a child of God.  
We are not valued by whether we are single or married, but by being a child of God.
Our primary identity is not in a political party, but by being a child of God.
Our security doesn’t come from our paycheck or wealth management, but by being a child of God.

One of Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians (3) says it well,
16 I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

In Thurman’s years as educator and preacher he found silence and contemplation a life-line, drawing on God’s source of life to fuel him in his spirit and work in the chaotic swirl of the world around him. I learned that not only did he practice this in his private life, but also in his public, including silence regularly in his sermons.  I was inspired to hear that and so I invite you into a time of silence and contemplation today to consider a few questions.

As we do so, close your eyes or look out a window. Take a deep breath and listen. Allow this space for God to enter.

Consider where you are physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally?  
Do you need to offer a lament and cry out to God?
Where do you see God’s revolutionary care in action?
What song are you singing?


Let us continue our contemplation as we read the confession together.

One: O God our King and our Maker,
forgive us when we try to make you in our image;
forgive us when we turn to earthly rulers
for the wisdom and strength
you have already shown us.
All: Fulfill your purpose in us,
that we may be your people,
your temples upon this earth,
your sisters and brothers in love and mercy.
One: Even the Most High God regards the lowly
with love and compassion.
Even the perfect Christ welcomes the sinful and lost
with open arms.
Come, we are the brothers and sisters of Christ.
All are forgiven by grace.
All: We are the family of God.
Praise be for forgiveness in Christ’s love!
(— Adapted from The Abingdon Worship Annual 2012, © 2011 Abingdon Press by Mary Scifres. Posted on the Worship Elements page of the Ministry Matters website.

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