A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
October 16, 2016
1 Samuel 1:1-11, 19-20; 2:1-11
The Ark of the Covenant resided in Shiloh. It was here that Elkanah and his two wives, Penninah and Hannah, would come to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts. And, each year, as they would journey to Shiloh, the part of the text we didn’t read says Penninah would provoke Hannah. Perhaps this is the ultimate family of dysfunctionality. . We don’t catch the dialogue, but I suspect it went something like this.
Penninah: “Hannah, aren’t you excited to go to Shiloh? So we can say thank you to God for all of our blessings, for all of our children? Oh wait. You don’t have any children, do you? Silly me. I forgot. So, what do you thank God for?”
Hannah, remembering that her mother told her if she had nothing nice to say, she should just curse silently under her breath, said nothing.
Her husband, who loved her greatly but seems a touch clueless here, says, “why are you crying? Am I not better than 10 sons?”
Um….no. Seriously? No, you’re not.
So Penninah walks into the temple with her children, proudly, confident God has blessed her greatly. Elkanah walks in, dutifully, appropriately. Hannah walks in, deeply distressed and weeping bitterly. She pours her soul before the Lord, begging for a child, begging to be remembered by God.
Eli, the priest, sees her praying.
“Go in peace.” he says. “The God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”
And God does. Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to a healthy boy she named Samuel. And after the boy was weaned, she took him, just as she promised, and gave him to the Lord. Left him at the temple in Shiloh with Eli, only to see him once a year when the Elkanah family came to worship and sacrifice.
I’m not sure I’ve always understood Hannah’s response after her son was born. I used to wonder if, after praying so long and hard for a baby, could I have handed him over to the priest at the temple? And if I did, would my song have been a song of praise as she sings?
Listen to her song, from chapter 2.
“Hannah prayed and said,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.
‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.’
Hannah has always been a mystery for me.
Her song, though, has affected me differently this week than other times when I have read it. It is a song of praise of sorts, but it isn’t the same song as I suspect Peninah would have sung—about how glad she is that God knows how faithful she is so she could be so rewarded. Hannah’s praise also recognizes lament, pain, and loss. I hear a song about life, and death, and loss, and victory.
I hear a song that acknowledges our lives are in the hand of God, and not resting in our own power, might, and success.
It’s a song of hope and promise, where the future will be better than we can imagine right now in the present.
We know the ending of Hannah’s story. We know that Hannah goes on to have 5 other children. But she doesn’t know that when she’s praising God and handing over her one child to the Temple.
We know that Samuel grows up to be a great prophet of God, who anoints Saul and later David to be kings of Israel. But Hannah doesn’t know that when she’s praising God and handing her baby over to be raised in the Temple.
One thing she might have known, had she been paying attention, is that Eli’s family was sort of messed up. His sons were not faithful men. The priesthood was a career where the job was passed from father to son, and Eli’s sons were corrupt, stealing the best parts of the offering for themselves. The text says “the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people….Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt”.
Was it clear to her that Samuel would be safe? Being raised in unstable conditions, in the midst of family dysfunction?
When she was singing her song of praise, she was handing her son to be raised by a man whose parenting record was spotty. And she still sang her song of hope. Because her hope was not in the things she could control, or the situations she could manufacture. Her hope was in God.
My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
And what she knew about God, what allowed her to trust her son into the service of God at the Temple, was that God brought up the fortunes of the poor and strengthened the weak. She sings a subversive song, which we hear echoed during advent in Mary’s song, the magnificat. A song where political power counts for little. A song where weakness becomes strength. A song where hungry people are fed. A song where barren people become bearers of life.
Her song is as subversive today as it was then. Women remain vulnerable, crying out for autonomy and respect. People remain hungry, crying out for bread. People remain at risk, crying out for equality and safety in the streets. Leaders remain corrupt, taking the best of the offerings at the expense of the weak.
This past week, I was at a church conference on the disgrace of racism. It was powerful and transformative for me. I will be processing it for a long time and will share more with you once my thoughts are clearer.
One of the speakers was Dr. Melissa Harris Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University. She spoke about the fact that her great-great-grandmother was sold as a slave. And she wondered how her ancestor could have imagined who her descendants would become. Could a woman being sold as a slave consider that one day her grandson would be a professor at University of Virginia, where professors were once allowed to have slaves on campus? Could she have imagined that her great granddaughter would be a professor and an author?
I wonder what song she sang when her children were born in the antebellum south? Was it like Hannah’s song? Let’s be clear. To bring life into a dangerous world is an act of faith and hope.
Dr Harris-Perry’s story reminded me of the resiliency of life. Even when we can’t promise safety and certainty, we bear life into the world, as a response to our cries and hopes we bring before God. We pour out our hearts before God, our perfect offering of hope for what we hope the world can become.
In this passage, the illustration of Hannah’s offering is giving birth to a child. And for Hannah and the other women in our biblical narratives, that was THE way to find security and success in the world. Some would say things haven’t changed so much for women today, as we acknowledge that matters relating to women’s sexuality and fertility remain important, sometimes painful, and political.
When I speak of bearing life into the world, I’m not only talking about giving birth to children. All of us create things of beauty, hope, and life—things we then have to offer up to God. Whether it is art, or commerce, or relationship, or service, the things we do can be life giving and hopeful when we offer them up to God without reservation or condition.
Or they can be for self profit only. Think of the way Peninah viewed her children as if they were proof of God’s favor to her—she had the potential to bear life into the world, and instead she bore selfish competition that could not spread hope to the world.
Similarly with Eli’s sons. They took the best part of the offering for themselves, making themselves rich off the work and hopes of others and doing nothing to contribute to the world around them.
I’m really convicted by Hannah this week. I realize I’ve been able to get by with half-hearted offerings because I have privilege, we have privilege, to be half-hearted. We have often part-way committed to working in the world without inconveniencing ourselves. Hannah was the one person in that story who did not have the privilege of half way. She didn’t have the fertility of Peninah or the access to power of Eli’s sons. As she wept, she asked to not be forgotten by God. She offered the life she could bear.
There are too many Hannahs in the world, asking not to be forgotten by God. Asking not to be forgotten by us. Will we remember them?
What if we, as a congregation, were “all in” here, at Southminster, the way Hannah was? What if we committed to offering all of ourselves, especially the life we bear into the world? What if we committed to better attendance, and more targeted financial giving, and participation toward God’s work in the neighborhood? We often have great ideas that die on the vine because we don’t have the follow through or commitment to see them done. What if?
And as we move forward with our building plans, I invite us to also offer this whole project up to God, for God’s service and not for our profit. As we see it being built, may we offer it to God, pouring out our hearts into bearing life into this community.
The world is praying to not be forgotten. May we remember. And bear life and hope to them, the perfect offering to God.