The fight for Gay Marriage

What We Need

What We Need

1 Samuel 1:19-28; 2:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 June 2024

               Through persistence and faithfulness in God Hannah achieves her goals.  And once again we see her taking matters into her own hands, not intimidated by religious authority or the way things are normally done, as she engages in worship—a ritual to dedicate her son to lifelong service to God.

            This Bible story got me remembering the weekend of Sebastian’s baptism, when family and friends came into town, and we had a house full of folks.  My mother-in-law, Sebastian’s Lola, spent two days fixing homemade Filipino food, and HyVee roasted us a pig, and after Sunday morning’s worship, we feasted together. 

            In January when I attended Conversations, the annual gathering of United Church of Christ senior ministers, our keynote speaker was the professor Mary Luti talking about the ethical demands of the sacraments—baptism and communion.  The sacraments, she said, are

rituals that announce, embody, and enact the good news of Jesus Christ. By grace and faith over time, they can infuse in us the gospel’s revolutionary joy, its indefensible mercy, its liberating honesty, its risk and danger, its distinctive ethics.

            The gist of her remarks was that while we do good and beautiful things with the sacraments, what we normally do is insufficient for the power and potential that they possess to form us into who God desires us to be.  And so she focused on their significance in the ethical dimension, proclaiming:

The sacraments are a vital source of the church’s public witness. And yet when we’re talking about Chritstian justice-making it’s rare that anyone says, “For these moments we have our baptisms; for these challenges, we come to the table. This is a baptismal imperative, this is eucharistic action. We can do hard things drenched in baptismal waters. We will persist, for we have been fed.” 

The sacraments just might be the church’s most underrated source of formative power for persevering engagement with the world. Centering them more than we normally do in our worship and formation could go a long way towards sustaining the public witness of the Body of Christ. 

            Last week we talked about Hannah’s prayers, arising from pain and expressing her faith and desires, as helping to give birth to the nation.  Today we read a story about her act of worship.  Eugene Peterson highlights that in her story there are seven different times she prays or worships.  She seems to be grounded in spiritual practice, and that spiritual practice comforts her pain, gives her confidence, inspires her vision, and empowers her actions.  Peterson writes that Hannah is an example that “worship is a way of life.”

            He also points out—“This story began with Hannah weeping.  It ends with Hannah singing.”

            And the song she sings is filled with power and vision.  Not only that her own needs will be addressed by God, but that God will intervene radically on behalf of the people to deliver them from evil and establish a better, more just future.  Hannah’s acts of worship have ethical imperatives too, just like our Christian sacraments.

            This song is a source for the radical, justice-making vision of the people of God.  At his best, David embodies the vision of this song, and at his worst, he is judged for failing to live up to it.  The words and images and ideas in this song become central to the visions of the prophets and the lyrics of the poets.  It is Hannah’s song which Mary covers and remixes and makes her own—the Magnificat.  And this vision, originating in Hannah’s song, growing and developing over the centuries, is what Mary taught her son Jesus, who embodied as fully as one can the grand ideas of justice that Hannah sang.  What a song!

            And talk about the ethical imperatives we can draw from worship!

            This magnificent song, this act of worship—full of gratitude, praise, thanksgiving, and forward-looking radical hope—arose from the needs, the pain, the grief and sorrow, of this one woman.  Her persistence and faithfulness.  And her confidence in a God who listens and responds.

            This summer I’m leading a Theology Book Club.  We’ll be meeting once a month to discuss a book, and the book for August is Christena Cleveland’s God Is a Black Woman.  Cleveland is a social psychologist and founder of the Center for Justice + Renewal.  Cleveland writes about growing up in an evangelical church and her youthful embrace of faith, religion, and spirituality.  Yet her growing struggles with that faith and her dawning awareness that not only did it not meet her needs, that it actively worked against them.  Specifically, it did not meet her needs as a black woman.  And fundamentally what didn’t meet her needs was the image of God she grew up with, what she starts to call “whitemalegod” and “fatherskygod” (both all one lowercase word).  And the more she studied and experienced life and began to question, the more she wondered if this image of God met anyone’s needs.  If we believe in a God who listens and responds and loves us, then we must reject whitemalegod and all of his negative effects on people and society.

            And so Cleveland went in search of images of God that arise from the Christian tradition and that did speak to her needs and the needs of all humanity.  Like Hannah, she took matters into her own hands, was not intimidated by religious authority and the way things are normally done, but sought out a life-giving spiritual practice and worship of God that met her needs.

Cleveland encourages the use of imagination when exploring God.  She writes that we cannot believe what we cannot imagine, and that too often traditional views have limited and inhibited our use of imagination, which leads to control.

            The divine image she discovered that spoke most powerfully to her were the Black Madonnas of rural France.  In villages throughout France, churches and shrines have centuries-old images of the Madonna and Jesus that are black.  In these sculptures and their stories and traditions, she discovered the God who listens and responds to her need.

            Cleveland argues that whitmalegod not only doesn’t meet human need but seems disgusted by it.  Toxic forms of religion compel us to conceal and repress our needs, particularly teaching women to do so.  Leading to a spiral of shame.  Instead, we must be liberated to identify and express our needs and take action to meet them.  Cleveland writes:

Echoed throughout these imaginings is a desire to authentically express our needs and for them to be cherished by those around us.  In other words, we long for nurturing . . . We yearn for a society that beckons our most authentic selves and celebrates our glorious quirks and foibles.  We long for a community that sees our need as an invitation to deepen our collective connections.  We crave a world in which our humanity is honored first and foremost.

            In the Black Madonna of Vichy, Cleveland discovered an image of the divine “She who cherishes our hot mess.”  For her, the needier the better.  This image of God gets “down into the thick of human experience.”  And God empowers us to create communities based on meeting our needs.

            I feel a resonance with Hannah, who believed in a God who listens and responds to our pains and our needs.  And with persistence and faithfulness, through acts of worship, she took decisive actions to bring about the changes she longed for.  Her worship and spiritual practice led to a set of ethical imperatives.  Cleveland does something similar in her spiritual awakening and her pilgrimage to discover the faith and the God she needs.

            Cleveland draws on research that shows matriarchal, as opposed to patriarchal, societies are “need-based societies that are centered around the values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community.”  Our vulnerability is valued and affirmed.  And society is structured to lift up our needs and respond to them.

            Hannah was alarmed by the corruption, disorder, and violence against women in her time.  She chafed under the patriarchal conditions of her life.  She envisioned something new, different, and better.  A world of greater justice. 

            She became a mother, who dedicated her son to this transformative work, to leadership among the people, guiding them to something better. 

            For Christena Cleveland, the work of creating needs-based communities is what it means “to mother.”  She proclaims, “No matter our gender identity, we are all invited to mother by creating life out of pain, by creating loving, interdependent community in response to violence.”

            Hannah may not have been the paragon of nurture—giving up her son to live at the shrine and be raised in service to God.  But she is an icon of creating life out of pain and taking the steps to respond creatively to the violence of her world.  From her individual pain, she envisioned something better.  She believed that God would listen and respond.  And so she centered her life on worship and spiritual practice—on her own terms, not bound by convention or intimidated by religious authority.  Her acts of worship, of persistence and faithfulness, became the source of a tradition that continues today, in us and the work that we do to nurture communities of care and outreach, supporting and encouraging one another, and engaging in the work of justice. 

            What do you need?  How do you experience God responding to your needs?  What sort of relationships and community would address those needs?  How might your needs shape your worship and your spiritual practice?  And how might your worship and spiritual practice flow back into the ethical dimensions of your life?

            Let’s imagine the more we might become.  And then let us live into the ethical demands of our faith and practice, to be a people who repond to human needs, and in that way embody God, who cherishes our hot mess.


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