The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The readings we have heard today remind me of one of the famous tales by Jean de Lafontaine’s…Well, maybe those tales are famous only if you’re French! But Lafontaine used to tell stories where animals and / or elements of the natural world were in conversation, and it seems quite innocent at first, and maybe a little childish, but there is always a moral lesson a bit cleaver to finish with. The story I am thinking about today is a conversation between an oak and a reed, where an oak is boasting about its strength and observes that it can resist the effort of a tempest, when the feeble reed has to bow to the slightest wind. Yet in the end, when the storm arises for good, it’s the oak that is uprooted – we have seen so many of those in the summer, I am sure you can picture that easily – but the reed survives because, as Lafontaine puts it, it “bends and does not break”. So as I was reading those stories of the Bible today, those stories that seem to respond to one another, I thought about this oak and this reed, the sturdy and impressive Temple being the oak, and the sensitive and humble Hannah being the reed. And I thought about strength and what the Bible could teach us about standing firm in the storm, and what it could be for us to “bend and not to break”.

It’s kind of funny and thought-provoking to realize that Jesus is not impressed by the Temple. For all of us to whom religion is important, our buildings are part of our pride, they witness to our history and to our common effort to create something beautiful for our worship. As I work as a supply priest, I almost visit a new church every Sunday, and there is always a story about the building…Jesus, though, reminds his disciples that the most important is elsewhere. As solid as it seems, the Temple they are admiring won’t last for ever – and the reader understands the irony of the situation knowing that indeed the Temple will be destroyed 40 years later. There was this movie I loved when I was teenager – “Working Girl” with Melanie Griffith. A young woman of humble origin works hard to be promoted from secretary to executive, and in the end she succeeds and it’s the last shot of the movie when she gets the corner office in a big firm in Manhattan, yet her office happens to be in one the twin towers, so when you watch the movie now it seems ironic and it tells a completely different story. You think maybe it would have been better if she hadn’t gotten the job…And so yes, when catastrophes happen, we are reminded that all our human edifices can crumble to dust and of course it’s only an image for our dreams and our achievements that get shattered in the process as well.

Jesus reminds his disciples about the unsteadiness of the world, its violence or maybe only its messiness, that makes it hard to rely on any certainty. Like the oak, the Temple is impressive, but it can only go as far as its own sturdiness to resist adversity: when it meets a stronger storm, it’s over. And so, I was thinking, maybe the Gospel tries to tell us that if we don’t want to crumble to the ground, we need to find another way than “hanging in there” and “toughening up” in the midst of difficulties.

This is this other way that the reading from Old Testament seems to open up for us today with the story of Hannah, a story that offers us another perspective on being strong. The story of Hannah is used a lot to do women Bible study because many women who cannot get pregnant can relate to Hannah’s grief. Yet the thing is, the story is about much more than wanting a child. In Hannah’s time, having a child was all a woman’s life was about, so the idea here is also that Hannah felt like her life had no purpose, that she was less than other people. It’s a feeling a lot of us, men and women of all ages, can experience as well. On top of that, we see that Hannah was bullied and misunderstood and that also happens a lot in our own time of doubts and troubles too, we may not be made fun of or persecuted but we also often have to cope with the incomprehension around us when we fail or go through a crisis: People pointing out our shortcomings, like the other wife does in Hannah’s story, people treating us with a tenderness that is a little patronizing, like Hannah’s husband, people telling us to pull ourselves together, like the priest. Yet, with Hannah it’s maybe not so much that she is weak, as most people seem to assume, than it is about her having another kind of strength than the strength of the oak, of the Temple, the strength we are expected to display in this world: sturdiness and impassibility. Instead of opposing and resisting the circumstances, Hannah acknowledges the hardship and her raw emotions, but she accepts the struggle and bring it to God and this is in this process that she finds hope and, in the end, deliverance. She makes me think about the reed that “bend and does not break”.

So what can we learn from Hannah that we could apply to our own difficult times?

Well, first thing I guess we could see Hannah not so much as a weak woman as much as someone who is sensitive and allows sorrow in her heart instead of becoming bitter or tough, and it seems to me a healthy example of Christian life. When there is a storm in our lives, acknowledging the grief and the loss is better than pretending it’s not there and closing our hearts both to pain and to love. My father died when I was fairly young and I was trying hard to keep functioning after his death but I had a lot of anxieties. It helped a lot that one day a friend told me I was not going to break if I allowed myself to feel the pain, and actually that would help me to feel better in the end. She taught me that sorrow does not always defeat us, accepting it is like “bending with the storm” instead of fighting exhausting fights against our feelings. With humility, accepting our limitations, our deceptions, our shames, our traumas, our mistakes is hard but important work because it keeps us real. When we keep pretending everything is okay, we may “power through” difficulties, but we can become distant and empty in the process. The story of Hannah shows us that with God it’s okay not to feel okay.

The second thing we could learn from Hannah is her sense of dignity. To her husband who thinks he can tell her how she is supposed to feel, and to the priest who tells her how she is supposed to behave, she responds by claiming her right to be who she is. Mourning in front of God, she owns her feelings, having a sense of her own value and of what she deserves. With humble courage and persistence, she does not let anyone bring her down. She knows her voice is important. She is neither bitter nor angry, she does not seek revenge, but she wants justice for herself, she wants something that gives sense to her life – and I think we deserve that too. Not because God owes us something but because God created us for fruitfulness, and that’s when we are fruitful that we feel really fulfilled and can fulfill our vocation to others. It’s probably not about building a Temple or getting the corner office, it’s about becoming who we are and expressing it with our skills and sharing our gifts to serve. Bringing a child into the world can have several meanings. Hannah understands fruitfulness – she does not want the child for herself, holding on to it, she offers the child back to God and we know Samuel will become this great prophet who will lead the king and the people. Hannah prefigures the Virgin Mary in the song she sings, she has a sense that her story is more than her story but is History for all the people of Israel. We to have something to offer to “make a difference in the world”, as we say.

And so in the end, I think that Hannah invites us to take courage and dare to hope in the midst of our troubles. Not that we believe that we can endure everything if we’re tough enough, but because we believe that with God we can work through the storm and bear fruit, because we are the real Temple – God is not going to come down from the sky to rescue us, but we have God inside of us who collaborates with us. I am not sure that difficulties call us so much to resist and endure until salvation magically happens, I believe that maybe difficulties ask of us to grow, to become flexible, to adapt to new circumstances and God will adjust with us and will help us to go further, God will give us a future. When Jesus tells us that we are in the pangs of birth, it’s not only about us, but it’s also about God birthing us through the circumstances of our lives. Pangs of birth don’t mean that suffering is good for us, but that there can be a fruitfulness to our suffering. And that’s where Hannah’s true maternity is. Her pain is transformed into fruitfulness because she knows God is with her. This is why the Letter to the Hebrews encourage us, as individuals and as a community, to “approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith”, like Hannah did on that day in the Temple. So let’s just do that as we confess our faith and offer our prayers today. Amen.

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