[I Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8]
Not long ago an international newspaper profiled someone who lives here in Ottawa. By itself, this isn’t terribly surprising. This is the nation’s capital; there are many interesting people here. What caught my attention about this piece, though, was that the subject was known essentially for a blog about books. The guy had previously worked for a Canadian intelligence agency and now has a website that is popular among CEO and high-net-worth investor types. What’s interesting too is that one of the most recent authors this guy has featured is a former nun, named Barbara Coloroso.
Now, one of my rules for life is that when I get an opportunity to listen to a conversation between a former spy and a former nun, I always say ‘yes’.
Barbara Coloroso, the former nun, is famous for her expertise on the nurture of children. “Kids are worth it,” is her famous phrase. I have often imagined that one way for a preacher to quickly anger a congregation is to talk about how each of us should care for the children in our lives. Nothing gets nice people hopping mad faster than telling them that they are turning their nieces and nephews into monsters . . . or their grand-kids or their own children or their students or whatever.
Today there is no way around it. Our congregation is celebrating the presence of little ones in our community. Our Old Testament reading is drawn from the story of Hannah. We heard her song of praise (I Samuel 2:1-10). You might remember that Hannah was the woman who was unable to have a child, prayed for years, had her prayer answered and then sent her son off to serve God among the priests and prophets. Actually, if you read the wider context around her song of praise (the first three chapters of the book) you’ll notice that another parent is featured as well: the high priest named Eli.
Now here is something we have to know: Eli’s sons were bullies. At the time in which our story took place there was no temple in Israel, just a tent of meeting (or a tabernacle) in the town of Shiloh. So when people wanted to participate in festivals or corporate rituals they would make a pilgrimage to that town. Many of these rituals and celebrations would involve offering a sacrifice to God. That usually meant killing an animal. It was a way of acknowledging that you had done wrong, that you had harmed your neighbours or the community. And so you would kill a prescribed animal and cook it as an offering to God. It was a symbolic repairing of relationship.
But here’s the thing: Eli’s sons worked in Shiloh and they saw this spiritual devotion as an opportunity. They would walk by the roasting meat, in the middle of someone’s sacred act of worship, and they would jab at the meat with a big fork. They would take whatever stuck. Or sometimes the young men were lazy even for that. They would send out their henchmen to threaten the worshipers, saying “Give us meat now or we will take it by force!”
In our own time, the former nun told the former spy that our goal in nurturing children should be for the little ones to develop a sense of internal discipline. We can’t do this, she said, by using rewards and punishment to get kids to do what we want. The goal is for kids to develop the willingness to stand up for what’s right even when it’s costly.
The priestly office was hereditary in ancient Israel. So it’s possible that Eli’s sons grew up with a sense of entitlement. They may have thought that the world owed them something. Or maybe they grew up resenting their priestly role. Maybe, from little on up, they heard their father Eli grumbling about his work. Maybe he groused and complained about the people he served. Children learn a lot from the way we talk, even if we’re not talking to them. Whatever the reason, Eli’s sons did not stand up for what was right.
In the middle verses of I Samuel 2 (v22ff) we read how the people actually confronted Eli about the behavior of his sons. We learn that, not only were the young men stealing choice cuts of meat, but they were assaulting the women who worked at the tent of meeting.
Here’s the exchange: Eli asks his sons, “Why do you do such things?” We can all but hear the passive, whining tone in his voice. There is the abdication of adult responsibility. “Why do you do such things?” he complains, “For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people.” Eli was out of touch. Maybe he thought his work was more important than the children in his life. He goes on, “No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad.” Not only is Eli passive and distant, be he is more worried about bad press than the actual harm his sons are inflicting. If that doesn’t sound familiar, what part of the Bible does?
In our own time the former nun told the former spy that one of the best things we can teach children is to take responsibility for their actions: own it and make it right. This aligns pretty closely with the philosophy of justice that runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Eli doesn’t help his sons own their actions; he doesn’t require them to restore the victims. He is just worried about what the neighbours think.
Nurturing children is difficult by itself, but the uncertainty makes it even tougher. Maybe Eli actually did everything right. Some great communities have children that make terrible decisions; some excellent people come from terrible situations. We know that’s true. Nurturing children, in whatever capacity we do it, is more like tending a garden than building a house. Or in the terms of some indigenous wisdom a congregant once relayed to me: it’s like tending a fire. You can’t control everything. Sometimes they need shelter, sometimes more air.
It’s not surprising that the former nun told the former spy that children need chances to make mistakes. They need chances to make choices. They need chances to have responsibility. They need room to develop their own sense of agency.
The other parent in our story is Hannah. We read her song earlier. That song does two things. First, and most obviously, it praised God for the gift of a child. In Hannah’s day not being able to have a child was a sign that you were out of favour with God. What’s more, people of her culture believed that their lives continued after death through their descendants. To die without children was a kind of double death.
It’s different for us. We recognize that our lives can be full and fruitful even without having children of our own. And yet, Hannah’s rejoicing reminds us that children and young people are worth our time and our attention. We celebrate the presence of children with her, even in troubled times, because we are confident in God’s faithfulness.
Long before her happy song, Hannah’s path had crossed Eli’s. She was one of those people who went to Shiloh to pray. In fact, she prayed so earnestly that Eli once thought she was drunk. He approached her and said, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” He judged her much too quickly and too harshly. Hannah replied, “I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.” Hannah poured out her soul before the Lord for years. Through the mysteries of providence God eventually answered her prayer much as she had asked. It doesn’t often work that way. Sometimes the best effect of our prayers are to throw us into relationship with God.
If Eli and his sons wallowed in entitlement, Hannah did not. She recognized full well that the child that had come into her life was a gift. And so she made a decision: he would be nazirite. That is, she would raise him designated for a certain task. He would not be like the neighbour kids. He would never cut his hair. He would never drink wine. His vocation would be to serve God’s people as a leader and prophet. He would grow up knowing what it meant to have responsibility and to make difficult choices. Hannah would nurture in her son a sense of purpose and a sense of identity. His life would never be an endless list of choices; he would know who he was.
And so when the child was weaned, he was taken to serve in the temple. As scripture says, “she took him to the house of the Lord.” And she sang,
My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. . . . There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you. . . . The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who are full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. . . . The pillars of the earth are the LORD’s; and on them he has set the world.
Here, then, is the link to our gospel reading and it’s the second important aspect of Hannah’s song. Hannah knew the importance of not being caught up in the dominant narrative of her day. We Mennonites call this non-conformity. She knew, and she taught her son, that those who are rich now might someday have to hire themselves out. She knew, and she taught her son, that violence might look powerful but wasn’t nearly so. The temple of Jesus’ day was imposing, but it wouldn’t last.
What has value? That’s the question all decision-makers face, venture capitalists and the rest of us. What really matters? That’s what every leader and all of us want to know.
And in a way, that’s eventually what children want to know too. What matters? What is a hero? Whom should we respect? Can my life make a difference? And the reality is, for all of us, what we say about these things means less than how we live. This is a challenge and a grace. But the grace runs deeper than the challenge, for God’s Spirit will be ever with us, even after the children in our lives have grown and moved on.