Value #3 & 4: Compassion & Support
March 19, 2017 (Lent 3)
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Back in the days of ancient Israel, before King David established Jerusalem as his capital and before David’s son Solomon built the holy temple, the Israelites would go to the ancient hilltop shrine of Shiloh to offer their prayers and sacrifices. Of all the shrines in Israel, Shiloh was the holiest. It was here the ancients had erected the holy tabernacle, the tent sanctuary constructed for worship in the desert. It was here they kept the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred chest containing the stone tables brought by Moses from Sinai and the sample of Manna, the holy food that sustained their ancestors in the desert. And it was here that Hannah, the first and favored wife of Elkahah, would plead to the Lord to open her womb.
We pick up Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel, 1:9 when Hannah, praying at the shrine, meets Eli, the shrine’s elderly priest and caretaker. As we read this passage and in the meditation time that follows, consider a time when you desperately needed the Lord’s favor and the support of those around you.
Hannah prays so fervently, so passionately that Eli thinks she’s drunk. Hannah’s neither the first nor the last woman to pray to God for a child. She’s also neither the first nor the last woman to offer that prayer year after year to no avail. And she’s neither the first nor the last woman to have been replaced by her husband because of her inability to conceive. That Hannah’s husband’s second wife was exceptionally fertile only increased the heartache and the pain. So here, during her family’s annual pilgrimage to the shrine, Hannah pleads, bargains even, with the Lord.
As Eli watches Hannah from his station near the entrance to the shrine, he concludes that she is drunk – and moves to intervene. His conclusion, and his actions, suggest that perhaps fervent drinking was a much more common practice at Shiloh in those days than fervent prayer.
Scripture presents Eli as a hapless, aging guardian of a shrine where the “word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.” Eli is a faithful priest, but not overly spiritual. He understands the ceremony and pageantry of his religion but lacks any deep relationship with the God he serves. He assumes Hannah is just another drunken vacationer but has ears to hear when she pleads her case, he retains enough compassion to share her pain, and remembers enough of his calling to support her in the form of a blessing. And the Lord grants Hannah her prayer.
Compassion and support. Values number three and four on our list of Core Congregational Values:
We show compassion for others; offering sincere encouragement and loving acceptance to all.
We support one another in all aspects and stages of life, spiritual and otherwise.
When Eli sees Hannah praying, his immediate concern is for the protocol and dignity of the shrine. With the Holy Spirit gone, Shiloh had become a place ruled by tradition and convention. Families, like Hannah’s, would come once a year, take in the sights, offer the sacrifices, party with their extended family, do some shopping, maybe do some business, and then go home. Eli’s job is to keep things moving, maintain decorum and offer a positive, consistent experience that changed little from generation to generation. Hannah’s passion, her prayer, her belief, her deep yearning for God’s intervention, gums up a carefully oiled machine.
When the Holy Spirit leaves a place, compassion quickly follows. And when compassion goes, so does mutual support. The hurting woman becomes a problem to be dealt with, an inconvenience to be expelled. How different it is when the Holy Spirit is present, when we stop to notice the hurt and the pain, when we allow compassion to rule our hearts.
Once, when Jesus was touring the villages around the sea of Galilee he happens upon a funeral procession for a man who was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. As Jesus watches the procession, he sees through the widow’s stoicism and sees her pain, her fear, her future as an unattached woman in a society where such women lacked economic and political access. Governed by compassion, Jesus wades into the funeral procession, stops the pall bearers, and raises the woman’s son from the dead. Now the man can continue to support his mother.
Over and over again in the gospels we see Jesus moved by compassion. This woman and her son are complete strangers to Jesus. He doesn’t even know their names. Neither does Luke, who tells the story in his gospel – suggesting the family never joined with the disciples or became part of the early church. Jesus has nothing to gain, yet he still acts. Her pain becomes his pain, her need his need. So he wades into the crowd and brings the healing presence of the holy spirit.
Compassion, the early Christians quickly learned, must be followed by mutual support. “Clothe yourselves with compassion,” Paul tells the Colossians. And also with “humility, patience, forgiveness and gentle admonishment.” Out of compassion, I bring my neighbor who is struggling a bag of groceries. With humility, patience, forgiveness and gentle admonishment I walk with my neighbor through the struggle to find a new job. Out of compassion I pray with my neighbor during a moment of spiritual crisis. With humility, patience, forgiveness and gentle admonishment I walk with my neighbor through the struggle to experience God anew. Out of compassion, I refuse to demonize my neighbor with whom I disagree – whether about the future direction of this church, of our country or how we best live out the gospel. With humility, patience, forgiveness and gentle admonishment I listen, I learn, I share and I walk with my neighbor as together we struggle to follow Christ anew.
Hannah’s vehement response to Eli silences him long enough for the Holy Spirit to step in. In that moment Eli remembers both his calling and his duty as a priest of the Lord Most High. The Lord opens Eli’s ears and allows him to listen. He opens Eli’s heart and Eli experiences compassion. He opens Eli’s mouth and out flows a blessing. A rote blessing, but one offered with meaning, with heart, with the desire to support Hannah in her prayer.
At the right moment, when Hannah’s life, when her soul, was on the line, Eli finds an ounce of compassion and a teaspoon of support. Its not much, but its enough. May we, who follow a savior governed in all he did by compassion, also respond to our neighbor with compassion and then surround our neighbor with a genuine community of support.