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Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: “Birthpangs”

1 Samuel 1:4–20

1 Samuel 2:1–10

Mark 13:1–8


Towering walls. Magnificent architecture.  All will be thrown down into rubble, Jesus says. In the end times, “Not one stone will be left here upon another. . . . Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”


Birthpangs. What a striking image. Jesus is delivering a blunt message about an epic social and natural collapse to come. He tells us, Expect the destruction of all you have built and relied on. Expect pain.


And suddenly his imagery moves from grand global catastrophe to personal suffering. He takes the pain of the end times and transforms it into labor pains, the beginning of new life.


What is this teaching? However we interpret Jesus’s prediction of the end times, we know from classic literature and scripture; we know from the daily news of hurricanes and public scandal; we know from our own experience, that this life is full of sudden collapse and loss. Full of tragedy that can be intensely personal and painful.


And our question is, How can we transform the pain in our lives from empty suffering into a passage of new birth?


I believe we are being taught on this question by the women we have followed this month in our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. In the society where these women lived, worked, and struggled, their survival depended on their tight connection to male kin. For daily support and protection, for the basic security of food and shelter, they needed to reproduce—and obey the social codes that governed reproduction. The life or death of their children, the life or death of their husbands or sons, determined their fate.


For them, the grand structure of patriarchal society was extremely unstable. All could be thrown down into rubble in a single heartbeat.


This morning, I invite you to reflect on the way three of our humble and great spiritual foremothers faced and transformed their pain and insecurity in this society: Ruth, Hannah, and Mary. The significance of their lives has sometimes been attributed to the famous sons they produced: Obed, who became the grandfather of David; Samuel, the great prophet who anointed David; and Jesus the Christ.


But I suggest a deeper meaning of these women’s stories is found before they gave birth. I ask you to consider the labor pains of their spiritual formation before they became mothers: the ways they moved closer to God when their worlds threatened to collapse. I invite you to do this so that we can follow their practice in our own dark times.


First, Ruth. Undermined by a series of devastating deaths: her husband, her brother-in-law, her father-in-law. Not only grieving, but fearing hunger and social rejection following these deaths, facing the prospect of separation from her cherished mother-in-law, Naomi. When the bottom is falling out, Ruth has the strength to recognize the true foundation of her life as love. And in this vulnerable moment, she takes a bold stand to envision a new future.


Turning toward Naomi, turning toward her God, Ruth gives us a towering lyric of faithful love: “Do not press me to leave you, or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”[1] And her abiding love and commitment does repair their lives as they move onward together to connect with new kin.


And their new kinswomen joyfully chant to Naomi at the birth of Ruth’s son Obed, “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”


Next, Hannah. Bullied, tormented, and anxious; in deep psychological pain from her inability to conceive. Her loyal husband suffers too: “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not worth more to you than ten sons?”


Yet I believe Hannah’s broken heart craves a deeper security than even ten sons could give her. She yearns to secure a relationship with God, to align herself with his favor and grace. So even in her severe misery, she turns toward God and pours out her soul in silent, intimate prayer. This is the moment of her spiritual labor in the temple, when she finally feels heard and healed.


In due time, when she gives birth to a son Samuel, Hannah gives us a heartfelt song about life’s insecurity and about God’s presence in all circumstances: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. . . The Lord kills and brings to life. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts up the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”


Hannah’s song of joy comes from the spiritual depth of someone who has sat in both the ash heap and in the seat of honor. Having lived both extremes, she concludes not that God is absent or fickle, but that He is the foundation on which we can build our unstable lives.


Finally, young Mary. It’s not the lack of a son that threatens her survival. It’s the conception of one without having a husband. Startled, disoriented, confused by the sudden reversal of her plans and the real jeopardy of her future, she surrenders to the moment. In all its wonder, in all its pain; in all its mystery, in all its promise. She turns toward God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[2]


Then, echoing Hannah, she gives us a soaring song of joy and humility: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”[3] She has given birth to a new spiritual consciousness long before her son Jesus arrives.


So how can we follow the practice of Ruth, Hannah, and Mary when we have our own end times? When we feel lost, cut off, or undermined? When a sudden reversal shoots us into pain that feels more like the edge of death than the start of a new life?


It’s a practice to turn toward God in those moments, as our foremothers did. It’s a practice to live through hardship as a kind of labor pain that can produce new understandings, new healing, new faith. I’m not saying it’s an easy practice. But we can still see examples before us today.


In May 2007, when she was just 21, Taryn Guerrero Davis received devastating news: her husband, Corporal Michael Davis, had been killed in Iraq. Within a ten-day span, this young woman learned of her husband’s death, planned his funeral, and stood at a podium giving his eulogy. A month later, she felt more isolated and alone than she ever had before. Nobody wanted to talk about what had happened; she had no one to help her understand or embrace her new identity in society: military widow.


Then she met Glenda Carter, a Vietnam War widow who at the age of 19 had lost her 18-year-old husband. Glenda reached out to her, explained the importance of connecting with other women bearing their particular heavy loss and pain.


This bond helped Taryn turn toward a new purpose and passion. Within four months of Michael’s death, she gave birth to the American Widows Project, a grassroots organization that gives a new generation of grieving military widows peer support. Moving forward from their shattered past, together these young widows “go out into the world,” Taryn says, “to be reminded that it is possible to laugh, heal, and live with enthusiasm and strength.”[4]


This is the birth of suffering into new life. This is what it looks like to turn toward God: away from the end times of sorrow and toward the forces of laughter, healing, and love.


Ruth, Hannah, and Mary point this way for us, from sorrow to song. And Taryn and Glenda and their sisterhood of widows remind us what we are meant to be to each other on this journey. Amen.


~ Rev. Clare C. Novak

Interfaith Minister, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church

Incline Village, Nevada

November 18, 2012





[1] Ruth 1:16–17.

[2] Luke 1:38.

[3] Luke 1: 46–49, 52–53.

[4] http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/meet-do-something-awards-finalist-taryn-guerrero-davis; http://americanwidowproject.org/; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_American_Widow_Project.