preached on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14) at Trinity Anglican Church in Lafayette, LA
Please pray with me.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. Amen.
There is indeed none holy like the Lord. For from him alone do we have our being. From him alone do all things come. Look around you. Look within you. Consider your earliest memory upon earth. Think of every toy from your childhood. Walk through your home. See the faces in your family and at your workplace. Journey through your city. You may pray, pry open, scalpel, trod and shred every square inch of this earth and all that is in it, and yet there is one truth which remains: pure gift. That’s what it all is. There are gifts. There is a Gift-giver, and from there the remainder of our lives is determined by what kind of gift-receivers we are.
Please turn in your Bible with me to 1 Samuel chapter 2. (give them time to turn there).
I would like to read for us today’s passage, 1 Samuel 2: 1-10 (read it).
Hannah in many ways is the textbook heroine. She is a woman in a dilemma. She is surrounded by two incompetent and insensitive men, the priest Eli and Elkanah her husband. She is also surrounded by a society, particularly her husband’s other wife Peninnah, who mocks and derides her for her inability to have children. That is to say, Hannah is presented to us as an underdog. And she longs to find a solution to her problem, which happens to be barrenness. Hannah is also a kind of metaphor for Israel, who is having its own problems with political barrenness. This is the Hannah we meet in 1 Samuel. As we continue to read, she asks the Lord for a son, whom is granted, and then we come to what has been called Hannah’s song, which we just read together.
This passage may also be called Hannah’s song of gratitude, and this is where she most differs not only from the American heroine, but this is where she becomes an important model for each of us, as well as an important model for how we ought to see Israel’s future, particularly seen in David, and our future, the contemporary Christian church in America. We will also see there are some important applications for you here at Trinity Anglican Church. Therefore, I’d like to spend our time today answering one question: what are we to do with the gifts God gives us?
If you think back to my opening, I claimed that all of life is a gift from God; down to every bit of clothing in your closet or drop of rain upon South Louisiana. And so what I’m really asking is that we consider not just what we should be doing with individual gifts God gives us, but what we should be doing with all of life, with our whole lives.
When our oldest daughter Emery, who is now three years old, was younger, I would be in charge of bath time. For the first year of her life I would use the same yellow cup to rinse her. As she matured each month, as babies do, she became more and more aware of her surroundings, of what bath time meant and even that the yellow cup meant warm water. She would drape her leg over the side of her mesh bath seat and enjoy the bath time rituals, becoming increasingly more aware of the yellow cup and its purpose.
I would often wonder, “What does she think of the yellow cup? What is its presence in her young gratitude? If she could speak, would she thank the yellow cup for bringing her warm water? Would she hug it and ask how it could be so kind?” I wondered if she knew that the yellow cup had no say in whether it participated in bath time. Did she know that the yellow cup was animated by my hand and that my hand was animated by my Heavenly Father’s breath? I would wonder, “Does she know her mom and I paid for this water? Has she considered that our monthly mortgage includes this tub and the bath tiles which adorn it?”
Our world is full of yellow cups; our world is filled with instruments of providence - each blade of grass, each sunrise and sunset over the bayou, each ant hill. Every day is a table brimming with providence. Reality is a sacramental feast. All this stuff comes from somewhere and it’s to bring us somewhere. And while we are here, in this reality, we will give thanks to something. Again, there are gifts. There is a Gift-giver, and from there the remainder of our lives is determined by what kind of gift-receivers we are.
Those among us who are hyper-patriotic will give ultimate thanks to our country, especially to our founding fathers. The patriotic man will dig back in history, to men, women, and their documents now crystalized in the American imagination, and he will offer his highest gratitude there for the birth of the nation and the democratic gifts all around us. However, the problem with the patriotic man’s gratitude, is that the very ideas and instruments by which a nation is held together must come from outside that nation.
The family man, the man who says family is important above all else, will go back a few generations for his gratitude. He will consider the work others have done to get him here and the work those around him have done to keep him where he is. The family man may ultimately attribute it all to the hard work of his ancestors or to a kind of blessed luck that has kept the family together and strong. The family man may be a God-fearing man, but not because God is worthy to be feared, but because the family man thinks his life too worthy to lose. However, the problem with the family man’s gratitude is that it always stops at the grave. Death, the great gift-killer, wins in the family man’s narrative.
For the atheist, the man who says there is not god, perhaps the world is nothing but yellow cups: impersonal, accidental, and unworthy bits all clumped together. Because these bits appear animated, and because the atheist’s heart is still a human one, he senses that gratitude must fit somewhere. For him, it is only reasonable that something becomes the biggest yellow cup, the one most worthy of our praise (e.g. science, rationalism, Mother Earth). But ultimately, the problem with the atheist’s position is that there is no room for gratitude. If the fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,” then the atheist has said with his logic, “There is no gratitude.” Even worse for the atheist, gratitude is humility. It is submission. And in a world of ever-moving, sporadic change, submission is weakness, at best. Unintelligent, inanimate objects do not deserve praise. A merely mechanical earth makes something as great and necessary as gratitude needless, laughable, and even pitiful, as the German philosopher Nietzsche tried to teach us. Still, the man who mistakes the yellow cup for a god, who goes to his pantry each morning to pray and sing so that his gratitude may be pointed somewhere, is less pitiful than the man who thanks his waiter on Friday and on Sunday says there is no divine, only earth. Though they are both idolaters, caught in a tangle of lies, the first has at least realized that gratitude requires the divine. The second can only say he is being mannerly, which is not gratitude at all.
To the naturalist, the man who thinks that what you see around you is all there is, gratitude can never be sincere because gifts are impossible. Giving requires will. It requires something more than moving parts. It requires intelligence. Gifts cannot happen in a world of cosmic accidents. Gifts are predicated on the reality of a gift-giver. Gifts come from a person. For the naturalist there are no people, in the spirited and willful sense, and therefore there are no gifts. Gratitude is yet another chemical relapse. It will be done away with in time, maybe.
In contrast to these, we see Hannah. She is our model. Hannah’s song is both a closing and opening. It is something of a personal closing because the son she longed for has now been born, and so she sings. But it is also an opening to the future of Israel, a foreshadowing of sorts. Shortly after this, we see the leadership of Israel pass from Eli to Samuel, and that exchange of leadership will continue to David. Today’s sermon begins a sermon series on David, King of Israel, and it’s important as you follow Fr. Peter in studying one of the most important figures in all of history, that you see the themes from Hannah’s song (i.e. praise, poetry, reversal, petition, unfaithfulness, exaltation, destruction, humility, providence, the Lord’s adversaries, strength to the king) play out in David’s life, in all the things David is given and what he does with those gifts.
When we are given gifts, when we have success, as individuals or a church, we may be tempted to do any number of things, and certainly Hannah could have done all of these. We could boast over our neighbor for mocking or doubting us. We could become bitter at those around us who didn’t help when we needed it. We could link arms with other successful people and brag together of our mutual gifts. But Hannah does none of these. In fact, what she does is quite alarming. She writes poetry. And she directs that poetry to one final end: God’s holy and gracious providence. She commits her gifts to the Lord, and so mirrors St. Augustine in his prayer at the beginning of Confessions:
“My God, I give thanks to you, my source of sweet delight, and my glory and my confidence. I thank you for your gifts. Keep them for me, for in this way you will keep me. The talents you have given will increase and be perfected, and I will be with you since it was your gift to me that I exist.” (Conf. p. 23)
The problem of providence is not a problem with the Gift-giver or even with his gifts. The problem of providence is that we so often don’t know what to do with it, and you will see this in David. We are given children, and the world tells us ten-thousand ways we should raise them. We are given money, and there are ten layers of taxes to which we must give and twenty layers of non-profits to whom we could give. For someone who has lived for fifty years, you have been given approximately 2,600 Sunday mornings. What did you do with those?
Trinity Anglican Church is at a place where it is young, perhaps asking God and hoping to give birth to a lively and thriving Christian community in Lafayette. We are asking the Lord to provide for Trinity in the coming years, and in so doing we must be sure to follow Hannah’s example, that when the Lord does provide, we would see no greater response than to sing, exalt God’s name, give thanks to our Lord, and yes, write lots of poetry.
Unlike the hyper-patriot, the family man, the atheist, and the materialist, we are Christians, and that means a lot when it comes to the kinds of gift-receivers we are. The Christian directs his gratitude with fervent heart and a sound mind. It is not directed at doctrines or systems. It is not ultimately directed at traditions and titles. The faithful Christian sees yellow cups and ponders not long. He knows his Maker’s handiwork. He sees grass, sunrise and sunset, and anthills. He sees architecture, technology, binders of law theory, and knows these are more than artifacts. They are characters. The Christian sees a stage upon which an Author is telling a story, a story which overflows with instruments of providence. All pointing to a single gift-Giver. We thank a person, three at least. We open our fridge, turn on the bath water, step on the gas, crack the cover of a classic text, hug our family, sing songs of old – each is a moment where we may offer mere gratitude for gifts we do not deserve, gifts we didn’t even know we needed. Every new day is filled with God’s providence, with ten billion Samuels.
In a moment, we will come to a table of ten-billion Samuels, a table overflowing with God’s providence. Upon and within this table are innumerable yellow cups, and upon it is the Eucharistic cup. Like all things in God’s economy, this table is pure gift, that we would be glad in Christ.
My daughter Emery eventually learned to look upon the yellow cup and follow the hand to my face. In time she learned to say “Thank you,” and in so doing she sees us looking beyond ourselves, to a face which is not our own, to a hand which upholds every cup, yellow or Eucharistic: so we look to Christ.
Now hear, as we close our time, the poem “Praise (II)” by George Herbert.
King of Glory, King of Peace,
I will love thee:
And that love may never cease,
I will move thee.
Thou hast granted my request,
Thou hast heard me:
Thou didst note my working breast,
Thou hast spar’d me.
Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
And the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.
Though my sins against me cried,
Thou didst clear me;
And alone, when they replied,
Thou didst hear me.
Sev’n whole days, not one in seven,
I will praise thee.
In my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.
Thou grew’st soft and moist with tears,
And when Justice call’d for fears,
Small it is, in this poor sort
To enroll thee:
Ev’n eternity is too short
To extoll thee.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.