1 Samuel 1:9b-18a, 20, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1: 35-51
There’s a lot of human nature in today’s readings from Scripture. Eli is snooping and getting the meaning of what he sees wrong until Hannah sets him right. Hannah herself in a stereotypical Jewish mother deciding on her son’s career: he will be a nazarite, which is a tall order because a nazarite was someone who, as Hannah says, could drink “neither wine nor intoxicants”; who could never get a haircut; and who could not touch anything dead be it man or mouse. That’s quite a decision for a mother to make without consulting her son. Moreover, a nazarite could have a temporary calling if he chose, but Hannah wants no part of that. She chooses to make Samuel a nazarite for life. It seemed to have worked out because Samuel deposed Saul and anointed David the king of Israel.
Then we get Paul who has a big problem with sex. While I was reading this passage along with the other two to prepare this homily, I was also reading for pleasure and relaxation Alan Bennett’s new book of fiction entitled Smut: Two Unseemly Stories, which contains two novellas about voyeurism, heterosexual and homosexual affairs, infidelity, incest, blackmail, and probably one of two other things that I’ve already forgotten! If you are old enough to remember the hit show and completely sexless comedy of the 1960s, Beyond the Fringe, Alan Bennett was the one who played the role of the English clergyman who preached a sermon on Genesis 17:11: “My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” Perhaps I can substitute a recording of that for my next homily. With that hilarious sermon in mind you’d immediately know that reading Smut would be more nearly funny than sexy, though there is a touch of that too. I also accidentally found and reread an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that I had put aside to file and quite characteristically forgot to. Kristof was talking about (to quote him) “the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.” Well, with Bennett and Kristof in mind, I found it rather hard not to think that Paul was a touch over the top with the Corinthians. But since I really know nothing about sex in the first century of the Christian Era, I admit the possibility of being a bit harsh on Paul here.
To continue with a fair share of humanity in today’s readings themselves—which so obviously are about discipleship that I hardly need dwell on that—there’s Nathaniel’s skepticism and prejudice about place: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks when Philip tells him about Jesus. This is something like someone living in Madison asking whether anything good can come out of Milwaukee. Or, more likely, someone in Milwaukee, sizing up events at the capitol, asking whether anything good can come out of Madison. The answer to that remains to be seen.
To be brief, then, there’s a lot of human diversity in these readings today. And I dare say that we witness that every Sunday when we listen to the Scriptural readings of the day. I suspect, however, that we generally don’t think about it because the readings are there to teach us a lesson in faith, to be sure. But it is good to remember that they also teach us a lesson in differences among the people who appear in them. Which is why, wouldn’t you say, it is appropriate to have the Sign of Peace after the readings. Or should I also say, after the homily? Because there’s a lot of diversity among those of us who stand up here and tell you what’s what (or, more accurately, what we think is what) Sunday after Sunday. Just as there’s a lot of difference among you who sit and listen to us say our piece.
Well with all that difference and diversity, we need something to make us more nearly one. That I think is why we have the Sign of Peace. It gives us a chance to pause. It allows us to put aside all the differences amongst us for the moment and to be reconciled to each other. After all, we are all of us about to become one, are we not? The celebrant’s words at the consecration unite us in the breaking of the bread: “So all of us are one body, all who share the one bread. . . .” In that way we are back to St. Paul who says earlier on in his letter to the Corinthians that “We, though many, are one bread, one body” (10:17). Moreover, he tells the Galatians (3:16-18) that “Baptized into Messiah, you are clothed in Messiah so that there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, man and woman, but all are one, are the same in Jesus Messiah” (Wills translation, p. 113).
So as different and perhaps even as strange or as simply human as we are, we are here today to be one with Christ as the liturgy reenacts the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples. The Eucharistic liturgy invites us to come together as much as the readings that precede it show us how difficult it is for any group of people to come together. Nonetheless, I suspect that we are here today not so much to become something different from what we are but simply to be what we are somewhat more gracefully than before.
Alan Bennett, Smut: Two Unseemly Stories (London: Faber & Faber, 2011).
Nicholas D. Kristof, “A Church Mary Can Love,” New York Times (18 April 2010), p. A11.
Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York: Viking, 2006).