Toorak Uniting Church

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Leadership with an open mind

1 Samuel 1: 9 – 18   Luke 1: 8 – 20
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
5 December 2004

A woman crying in the temple. All on her own, only her lips moving, tears streaming down her face.

Would you know what to do if you walked in on such a scene this afternoon, in church, after everybody has gone, the Sunday morning service over, the Sunday lunch tidied away and everybody else happy at home with their family?

I bet it would at the very least make you feel a bit uncomfortable. Or maybe you’d wish you had not walked in on something that is supposedly private, perhaps you would even feel a tiny bit annoyed, to be confronted with something like that where you were expecting a silent and peaceful church.

The bible story doesn’t tell us much about the way Hannah handles her grief at home. Some children’s bibles seem to suggest that she walked around the house in shrouded in sadness and despair. Somehow I have trouble believing that. Would Elkana have loved her so much if she had? Would she have sought solace in the temple the way she did?
No, I like to think she was one of those very strong and outwardly composed women we have quite a lot of in this Church. Women who don’t show the burdens they carry or the worries that keep them awake at night, who care for others and don’t ask anything for themselves, women that are strong, resilient and at times very lonely on their journey through life.

I imagine that at home Hannah was hiding the pain that was ripping her apart, her sadness at not being able to produce any children and the suffering she underwent because of the grief Peninna caused her. I imagine that she was one of those that try to put on a cheerful face and endeavour to be positive in the face of whatever adversity or trouble comes their way. I envisage her as somebody that would welcome Elkana home with a smile on her face and make sure Peninna’s children would not catch her unawares with tears in her eyes. I see her as a brave woman, and a strong one, suffering at the hands of another woman, feeling she’s failing the man she loves, desperate for a child of her own.

After the Sunday family lunch she presents herself before the Lord in the temple. She finds a place of refuge, a sanctuary where she, if it is only for a little while, can pour out what troubles her to the Lord. Nobody to know, nobody to hear, just between her and God she finds herself a place where she can let go and cry her eyes out. Somehow it is only before God that she can be herself and express her deepest sorrow and longings. O God, if only you would give me a child……..

In walks the priest, Eli, whose task it is to look after the sanctuary, and make sure nothing untoward goes on inside the Holy Place.
Eli is having a difficult time. Things don’t look good for organised religion. Participation in worship is going down, moral standards are low, sexual misconduct, gluttony and social injustice rife even amongst the clergy serving the temple. His own sons, also priests, are sleeping around with the temple guards, keep what people have brought as an offering for God to themselves and extract money from visitors to fill their own purses. Eli is probably not at all surprised to find a drunken woman in his church!

What’s the world coming to?

"Oh, go away", tiredness, disillusion, frustration barring him from seeing what is really there: A woman in distress seeking solace in a Holy place, hoping for comfort, for support, for a place to be held and healed.

Years of faithful service, of keeping things going in the house of the Lord against all odds, of fulfilling his duties in the temple have dulled his perceptiveness and closed his mind to a degree where he is no longer able to see genuine piety where it presents itself. In the serving of the Lord, faithfully, over the years, Eli has lost the ability to genuinely connect to what is Holy and of God and to distinguish real and heartfelt prayer from drunkenness. And even when he realises what Hannah is doing he doesn’t seem to have the ability to answer her need with real and genuine pastoral care. Go in peace and the Lord grant you your petition is a pretty lame and not very warm hearted response to a woman in utter distress.

A similar thing seems to have happened to the other priest we’ve read about. Zechariah has lived his life blamelessly according to the commandments and regulations of the Lord. He has served in the temple for many, many years. A pious man, leading a pious life in the service of the Lord but not able to believe the promise he’s given when an angel appears to answer his prayers. Years and years of faithful living and committed serving in the house of the Lord have left his mind closed to the miraculous possibilities God’s grace can open. He’s struck dumb by unbelief and the inability to allow for the possibility of the miraculous happening.
"Me, a son, at my age, and a prophet at that, forget it!"

It happens doesn’t it? And not only to men and not only to priests and not only all that time ago.
It happens in our Church, with us, today.
That we go about our business, that we live faithfully, fulfil our duties, work hard to keep it all going, despair at times at the state the world seems to be in, get tired an downhearted when we look at others who don’t seem to be interested in what is so important to us, and then lose the connection. The connection to what is holy and of God. That we are no longer open to the miraculous, to the way God may break into our lives, that we do not expect true piety in those around us, genuine seeking, real need that needs to be brought before God.

A crying woman in Church, an angel next to the communion table. I wonder what would happen if it happened to us?

If you walked into this Church this afternoon and you would find a woman crying in here.

But you don’t think you would, would you? Not in this day and age….

But what if you did? What would your primal reaction be? To what conclusion would your mind first jump? Would you sit with her to seek God’s presence with her? Would you withdraw quietly and let her be, waiting outside to make sure she was alright leaving the Church? Would you want to know about her, or would you wish desperately you’d be somewhere else altogether? Would you feel she should have stayed at home? Kept her chin up?
Is God, is the Church a place where you feel these very deep and raw emotions should have a place, a space to be?

I wonder what would happen if an angel appeared to tell you something you deemed impossible was about to happen. Would you rub your eyes in disbelief and shake your head?

Is there room with us, ministers, elders, councillors and church members for the encounter with the deep mystery of a true and very profound relating to God in prayer? Is there room for the unexpected and unsettling presence of God in our midst? Is there room for God in all our good and faithful living, serving and working, in all the commitments we so dutifully perform for God? Do we ever get near Him? Do we ever let Him near us?

We got this wonderful building, we’ve been blessed with so many opportunities and possibilities as a congregation, we are a growing community of dedicated and loving people. We got 13 elders and councillors willing to be commissioned today. We’ve been blessed abundantly. But we’ll have to keep our eyes open, and our minds, we’ll have to work at keeping the lines open, to God, and be ready for the unexpected, the unsettling presence, the mystery of faith breaking into our well ordered, neatly organised religiosity.
Because God is bigger than that and far more awesome than doing the rounds and staying on the straight and narrow.

God is where despair rips people apart, where tears flow freely and without reservation, where hopes have died and the light seems to have gone out completely. God breaks in with his impossible dreams and far fetched visions where life seems to have lost momentum and nothing much is aspired for any more.

God comes and makes a new start, brings healing to the brokenhearted and opens the future to those who thought they had none. We and especially those among us who have been called to be leaders in this community better keep ourselves prepared for that: That we might find God and true piety in others at unexpected times in unexpected places if we keep our minds open, that our duties in this Church may be interrupted at any time by an angel promising what we find difficult to believe. That God will not leave us in peace, but will keep disturbing us with his presence, his dreaming, his visions and his unexpected actions. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

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