On being minor characters in one another’s lives
A sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost
Last week I played a very small part in the election of our next bishop. If you heard my story, you might learn a little about what happened and a little about some other people who were there or whom we spoke about. You might also learn a little of the context, what it was like for me and for others as an experience.
I was a minor character in this event and these are the roles of a minor character. For a writer, their minor characters need to fulfil at least one of those functions. They advance the plot; they give insight into other characters; or they set the tone of the scene. They may even do all of those things.
Have you watched or read Pride and Prejudice? Two very memorable minor characters are Mr Collins and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte Lucas. She is as much a minor character in his story as he is a minor character in the story of Elizabeth Bennett.
Let’s look at our reading from 1 Samuel.
This is a story set within a marriage, but unlike Mr Collins, Elkanah has 2 wives.
Both Mr Collins and Elkanah seem like men who can love one woman deeply and this is so even if the marriage is arranged. Mr Collins is not clever or socially apt. He is rather ridiculous and annoying, but he is a kind man who believes in helping others. His uncle’s estate is entailed to him and when his uncle dies, Mr Collins will inherit all of that estate, leaving Mr Collins’ aunt and cousins destitute. The solution, and his clear duty, it seems to him, is to marry one of the cousins. He will have a grateful wife and the family will not be dispossessed. He will have done a good deed to his own and others’ benefit.
Unfortunately, the eldest and prettiest daughter Jane is, according to her mother, about to become engaged. His gaze falls on the next daughter, Elizabeth. Also unfortunately for him, she rejects his advances. Waiting in the wings is Charlotte Lucas, who sets out to secure Mr Collins for herself. It is the perfect marriage for them. Charlotte, who is not expected to marry, finds a husband. Mr Collins, who is feeling quite rejected, secures a wife well suited to his position. Accordingly, he very quickly loves her dearly and she learns to arrange their domestic life in ways that are most satisfactory to her.
Their marriage is a happy one but one which throws into contrast the more particular standards that Jane and Elizabeth seek, and find, in a marriage.
Elkanah, like Mr Collins, loves one woman deeply. Unfortunately, he is married to two women. Socially, he must and does have a wife who gives him children. That is Peninnah. He does his duty by her, providing for her and having children by her. But it is Hannah, who is childless and jealous of Peninnah, that he loves. Like Mr Collins, Elkanah is kind but unwise. He lavishes all his kindness and extra favours on Hannah, provoking Peninnah also to jealousy.
All three people in this marriage are unhappy.
How and why do we know all this? The point of today’s reading seems to be that the childless Hannah prays to God and bears a child, Samuel, who is the last judge and first prophet. This comes to pass because he is a gift from God and his mother gives him back to God’s service. Samuel is the main character of this story, even though the story ends with his birth.
We could learn all this without those first 8 verses about Elkanah and his two wives, but they are important to the story.
Peninnah and Elkanah are minor characters who reveal something about Hannah and subsequently Samuel. As in many stories in the scriptures, the ones who seems most powerless really do matter. They also advance the plot. Hannah might have desired a child because that was customary, but this desire is intensified by her love of Elkanah and her jealousy and resentment of Peninnah. And finally, we have the mood or context. Hannah’s situation colours her appearance and behaviour at the temple. This intensifies the story about the coming pregnancy and the birth of Samuel. It all works together to show that Samuel is someone very special. He is special to his parents and to God, and will be special to God’s people.
The Gospel reading tells us to beware of both characters and events that seek to change the plot, to change the direction of our faith and commitment, to change us, and to change the context of our lives.
“Beware!” Jesus said. Do not let other people and events determine who we are and the direction of our lives. Even the power and impact of nations, wars and earthquakes are not to lead us astray by false speculation or interpretation.
There will be influences in our lives but these should be the ones that Jesus tells us to love: God and one another. The Gospel reading says we are to be led by the Holy Spirit. We are not even to worry about words in our own defence. If troubles come, we can trust in God.
We should also be able to trust in one another. We have all been redeemed and sanctified by Christ. We can approach God with confidence but we do not do it alone. We are to be mindful of one another. We are the minor characters in one another’s lives.
I love that the NRSV translation tells us to provoke one another.
The most common meaning of provoke these days is to anger, enrage, exasperate or vex. *
“Don’t you provoke me!” “But the Bible says I must!”
Despite that common negative meaning, provoke still means, and means here, to arouse, to call forth feelings, desires or action.
We are to provoke, to influence and encourage one another to good actions. In other words, to encourage one another to live the Christian life that will naturally bear the fruit of good deeds.
There are minor characters who influence our lives and we are the minor characters in the lives of others. Will we be foolish and lead one another astray or will we be notable for love and kindness and advancing the best sort of living for the best sort of reasons?
Ultimately, Mr Collins, Charlotte Lucas, Jane and Elizabeth Bennett found their happy endings. We know that Hannah and Samuel also flourished in their different ways. The outcomes for Elkanah and Peninnah are unknown to us, as is much about the ultimate outcome of our own lives.
However, we know how to find the direction of a flourishing and abundant life. May we love God, follow Jesus, and be led by the Spirit. May we support and encourage one another in all we do and say. Amen.
verb (used with object), pro·voked, pro·vok·ing.
- to anger, enrage, exasperate, or vex.
- to stir up, arouse, or call forth (feelings, desires, or activity): The mishap provoked a hearty laugh.
- to incite or stimulate (a person, animal, etc.) to action.