The Embodied Journey at Christmastime
December 30, 2018
1 Samuel 2:18-20 and 26
Merry Christmas! I feel especially grateful to be sharing the teaching with you all today in this Christmas season. We have come through the time of waiting and expectation and now we get to honor and hold up Jesus’ birth and growth as a young adolescent. We can also reflect on the growth and newness that we see in and around ourselves, and praise God for it! This is a time for witnessing, praising, and recognizing the broader story of life that we are a part of. The lectionary scriptures for this week are a wonderful guide for our reflection on this season.
The 1st Samuel passage gives us little bits of the story of Samuel as a young boy serving in the temple. Samuel ministered in the temple and wore a linen ephod, which was a tunic-like garment worn by the high priest. His mother and father (Hannah and Elkanah) visit the temple once a year for the annual sacrifice and Hannah gives Samuel the robe that she has made for him. Eli blesses Hannah and Elkanah for giving Samuel to the priests/temple. The passage skips several verses and we get verse 26, “And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men.”
In looking at this passage it seems important to look at more of the story of Samuel. As we look further we’ll see that there are many similarities between Samuel’s story and Jesus’ story. We should start with Samuel’s mother, Hannah. Hannah was one of Elkanah’s wives, and was barren. She went with her husband when he visited the temple each year, and one year (after being provoked for not having any children by Penninah, Elkanah’s other wife) was so sad that she pleaded with God and Eli, the priest, for a child. It also says that her husband, Elkanah, would give her extra food because she did not have children and that she was so troubled that she would not eat. Eli blessed her, she ate, and soon she became pregnant. When she had the child, she named him Samuel and decided to give him up to the Lord. Once he was no longer being breastfed, she took him to the temple at Shiloh and gave him to Eli, the priest. Then Hannah gives a beautiful prayer of gratitude, praise, and wisdom to God - with many similarities to Mary’s prayer (the Magnificat) after seeing Elizabeth when she is pregnant with Jesus, which was the psalm for last Sunday. This is a beautiful story of a woman who was barren, prayed to God, and God answered (through Eli), she gave birth to a son, praised God, and then gave him up to the Lord.
Samuel served well in the temple as a young boy. His mother continued her support and care for Samuel by visiting him every year when they would go to the temple to pray and make sacrifices. Her making a robe for him and bringing it is a sign of her continued care for him and his service in the temple. This passage also reminds us of the importance of different garments in this time and the simpler way of making one’s own clothing.
The verses read from the lectionary this morning are 1 Samuel 2:18-20 and 26. Whenever verses are skipped like this, it seems so curious to me, so I always read them and wonder why they weren’t included; maybe you do the same! It is interesting here because the verses that are skipped describe how Eli confronts his sons for the wicked things they were doing in the temple, with the sacrifices and with the women who were living near the temple grounds; but his sons do not listen to him. Samuel did not participate in any of this and served well. And it states that he “grew in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men.” This makes me think of some of our current systems and injustices in our politics. It may seem as though it is inherently corrupt, and it may be, but it was still possible for Samuel to do God’s work amidst his wicked comrades, and I think the same is true for people who want to follow God’s way in these difficult times, whether that be in the halls of power and empire, or in the streets, schools, non-profits, for-profits, medical centers, seminaries, libraries, churches, and coffee houses. Samuel’s story can be an encouragement for us--that his work and physical growth was good and it was noticed by God and those around him.
The Luke passage in the lectionary offers a portrait of Jesus at a similar time in his life as young Samuel. Jesus as a twelve-year-old, having visited the temple with his parents for the Feast of the Passover, stays at the temple after his parents have left (thinking he was with them). It is the only story in the gospels of Jesus’ adolescence. I’ve always liked it, and wondered a lot about this story of young Jesus. Why did Jesus stay behind at the temple? Was it because he wanted to give himself to God’s work but didn’t realize that it wasn’t the right time yet? Perhaps he was inspired by Samuel’s story? Was he just a little mischievous (probably not)? His answer when his parents do find him, does seem genuine that he “had to be in his Father’s house.”
The story also shows the humanity of Joseph and Mary that they left Jesus behind, and it took them a whole day to realize that he wasn’t with them. I appreciate the difference in their way of life to ours, one where people traveled in groups for a special occasion such as the Feast of the Passover and cared for each other’s children, with such trust that you didn’t worry if you didn’t see your child for a day or so. I can also relate to this on a personal level. As one of four children I “almost” got left places several times growing up. And a couple of times on family vacations, my family would play a mean trick on me by leaving me at a gas station while I was in the bathroom and waiting just long enough for me to realize they weren’t there, and then driving around from the back to reveal that they were still there. But I don’t think that Jesus was worried about being left. He was at home in the temple, talking with the priests, asking questions, and learning. A young boy eager for knowledge and the community of other teachers. And the passage ends with, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”--very similar to the description of Samuel. This story provides to us a witness of Jesus’ growth and divine inspiration as a teenager, his inquisitiveness, his wisdom, and his desire to serve God. We’ve followed the story of Jesus up to this point, and here we get what seems like an update on Jesus’ growth and development. The calling out of God working and Jesus growing in his physical body, character, and wisdom.
Psalm 148 is a beautiful psalm that is pure praise. It calls for praise from the heavens, the sun and moon, the stars, waters and skies, the earth, sea creatures, ocean deeps, lightning, hail, snow, clouds, winds, mountains, hills, fruit trees and cedars, animals, cattle, small creatures, birds, kings, nations, princes, all rulers, young people, older people, and children. What a long list to call on to praise God! It is a good reminder that all things can praise God--and much of creation does often.
I often need a reminder to praise and spend time with God. Recently, Fred Taylor gave me a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called Meditating on the Word. He discusses the importance of making space to pray and meditate each day. It is helpful for me to remember our place in creation and the rhythm that is there for us in its bounds. Bonhoeffer describes it like this:
Each morning is a new beginning of our life. Each day is a finished whole. The present day marks the boundary of our cares and concerns. It is long enough to find God or to lose him, to keep faith or fall into disgrace. God created day and night for us so we need not wander without boundaries, but may be able to see every morning the goal of the evening ahead. Just as the ancient sun rises anew every day, so the eternal mercy of God is new every morning. Every morning God gives us the gift of comprehending anew his faithfulness of old; thus, in the midst of our life with God, we may daily begin a new life with him. (Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word’ page 28-29)
What a beautiful and hopeful word that reminds us of our connection to the earth and the pace that it works within, each day offering us new life. In this Christmas season it seems appropriate to reflect on the earthiness of being human--since we are celebrating God being present among us in human form through Jesus. There are also many snippets of earthiness in the passages for today: Hannah eating after being blessed by Eli and having children, Hannah making a linen robe for Samuel, Samuel wearing the ephod, Jesus physically staying behind to be in the temple, Psalm 148 calling on all of creation to praise God - so I’d like to share about a class that I audited this fall at Wesley Seminary called Embodied Prayer.
The class was about offering dance and movement as prayer, worship, and spiritual expression. It was a wonderful class that helped me to learn more about my body, the ability to connect with God through physical expression and dance, and to learn about ministering to our bodies as humans. It also helped me to focus on our humanness, and connection to the earth as part of that. The conservative Episcopalian church in which I grew, the body was not brought into our worship very much. I learned in our class that dance was an integral part of the early Jewish tradition and of Christian worship but was repressed from Christian churches around the time of the Renaissance because religious leaders became fearful of its charismatic power, and desired control over the expression of movement. There was also a growing idea of the separation of the body and the spirit--the spirit being the good part that could be trusted and the body being the bad part that needed redemption. (Thomas Kane, pg. 87) This way of thinking was a part of my religious upbringing and caused me to mostly ignore and disregard my body as a legitimate aspect of my faith and being. This class opened up for me the inseparable nature of my body from my spirit or soul. This passage from Embodied Prayer: Towards Wholeness of Body, Mind, Soul by Celeste Snowber is very helpful for me in thinking about the importance of our bodies in our faith journey:
The New Testament gives us more than an example of postural prayer and dance; it shows a way of being embodied in the life of faith. We see, lived out most completely through Jesus, an embodied way of being in the world. As Jesus walked along this earth, he touched people as he healed them, gathered the children in his arms, kneeled to God in prayer, washed the disciples’ feet with his hands, broke bread with them, and finally gave his body up on the cross. In his touching and healing, washing and gathering, kneeling and breaking, we partake of a continued bodily prayer, a prayer on behalf of those he cherished. We do not get a picture of a God who is distant, uninvolved, or so mystical as to be out of the body. Rather, Jesus gives us an image of a Creator who is deeply connected to the body, a God who is there with us. Attentive. (Snowber, Pg. 81-82)
The Colossians passage is connected to this theme as well through reflecting on what we should “put on” as followers of God to be prepared for each day. This passage gives us helpful words for participation in God’s work around us. So, if you’re willing, let’s try out an embodied prayer to this scripture from Colossians together. I’ll teach it to you, you can sit or stand as you’re able.
‘Therefore as God’s chosen people
(hands out in front, circle to the sides)
(right hand in circle in front of the chest)
And dearly loved
(arms outstretched up, looking up smiling)
(hand down over head, moving down at the sides)
(hands out from the heart, offering)
(pull hands in to the mouth)
(head down; hands out at sides)
(head up, straight ahead, hands slowly raised up, arms bent)
(hands in front of heart, praying)
Bear with each other
(hold hands w/ neighbors)
And forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another
(turn to neighbor; one person hands up the other hands over top)
Forgive as the Lord forgave you
(switch who is on top)
And over all these virtues
(hands around head, big circle)
Put on love
(hands stretched out in front)
Which binds them all together in perfect unity (hold hands w/ neighbors)
Thank you for being willing to try that with me. What a sweet time to celebrate Jesus’ birth and life on earth. May we be open to the life around us and within us, and have the courage to name and witness to it; and may we have the faithfulness to tend to it as Hannah, Samuel, Mary, Jesus, and so many others have done before us. Amen!