The Hope in Hannah

1 Samuel 1:4-20
November 15, 2015
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5but to Hannah he gave a double portion,* because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.* Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11She made this vow:
‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite* until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants,* and no razor shall touch his head.’

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ 15But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ 17Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ 18And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters,* ate and drank with her husband,* and her countenance was sad no longer.*

19 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’

It’s been a good lectionary year for the women of the Hebrew Bible. In September we heard the story of Esther. On All Saints Day we heard from Mary and Martha. Last week we heard the story of Ruth. And today, we have been blessed with the story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Samuel was the last of the judges and one of the first of the prophets of God. He ushered in Israel’s first king and monarchy. And just as the Christian leg of our journey begins with the story of an unlikely birth (we will get there next month during Advent), so too does this watershed in the history of God’s relationship with God’s people. Samuel was God’s gift to Hannah, and Samuel was Hannah’s gift to God and God’s people…. A gift of God for the people of God.

In Hebrew, “Hannah” means gracious, charming, compassionate. She was the first wife of Elkanah, a well-bred, well-off descendent of Zuph, an Ephraimite or a Levite, depending upon the source consulted. Elkanah is listed in the Talmud as a prophet. And one could study for days on the ancestry of Elkanah. There is a mass of information, or at least speculation, on his lineage. But not so much on either of his wives. All we know about Hannah, his first wife , is that she was loved by her husband and that she had been unable to conceive a child. And all we know about Elkanah’s second wife Penninah, whose name literally means ”fertile,” is that she was probably acquired by Elkanah to provide for Hannah’s deficiency. Neither of these women are identified by anything other than their status as wives of Elkanah. Their sole identity, seemingly their sole purpose in this life, is to bear children for their husband. And so, as we hear in this morning’s reading, Hannah is understandably distraught by her barren-ness.

This is not a new theme in our faith tradition. In fact, it is a fairly familiar theme in the early life of our Jewish forbearers. Sarah was barren, to whom the patriarch Isaac was eventually granted by God. Rebbekah was barren, to whom Jacob, the next Hebrew patriarch was eventually granted by God. And Rachel was barren, to whom Joseph, the last of the patriarchs was granted by God. And as we will hear in two weeks when we enter Advent with the story of John the Baptist – his mother, Elizabeth, was also barren until an ancient age when she miraculously conceived her son. Hannah, therefore, is in good company. She is but one of many Hebrew women who were very unlikely vessels for the most amazing gifts of God. Hold that thought.

And, we would do well to remember this story of Hannah and her Hebrew sisters on those days, those weeks, those months and even years when we feel that we have nothing of value to offer the world. When we feel barren in our own wombs and ways. When we cannot imagine how God could ever have intended to use us for anything of substance. When we cannot believe that God has chosen us for….anything at all. When we feel as Hannah felt. Not un-privileged, but much worse – un-useful.

And so when Hannah, who had the love of a well-bred, well-off descendent of Zuph, failed to conceive, of course she felt utterly useless. What was she born to do but conceive a child? What did God expect of her? What did God want of her? What was God’s hope and dream for her if not to bear a child? But rather than turning her bitterness and angst on her sister wife, as others before her had done, instead she turned her questions and her pain immediately, directly, and personally to God. She did not go through an intermediary or a sanctioned ritual. There was no appeal to the “proper authorities.” No, Hannah rather stood, as the Hebrew says, directly before God and poured out her soul.

Unfortunately, her prayers were overheard by the thoroughly ineffectual priest, Eli, who saw her lips move, but heard no words. And thinking that she was talking to herself in an altered state, he immediately jumped to the conclusion that she was inebriated (the biblical precursor for the start of the Salem witch trials, I suspect). But Hannah assured him that she had not been drinking. Rather, she was seriously distressed (although actually the Hebrew is closer to a seriously stubborn). What Eli witnessed was not inebriation, but fervent prayer. And Eli seemed to be satisfied with her response, although he did not ask the substance of her petition or if he could be of any comfort (bad priest!), but he did say to her: ‘Go in peace; may the God of Israel grant your prayer.’ And it seems like the God of Israel did just that. Because as the reading says, Hannah went to her quarters and ate and drank with Elkanah, and she was sad no more. The apparent message: pray hard enough and God will deliver.

But, we know that that is just not true. God does not answer our prayers as we pray them. If that were true, this world would be a very different experience. If we could allay our own pain by our own faith, there would be no cancer; there would be no violence; there would be no addiction; there would be no divorce; there would be no more suffering or sorrow.

I was going in a very different direction with this sermon before…….Friday night. Before the massacre, before the terror, before the unthinkable evil committed in the name of Allah, in the name of God. After the attacks, cyberspace delivered a message from the perpetrators. A video from the Islamic State issued in both French and Arabic, in which the spokesperson said, according to the National Public Radio translation: “With the support of Allah, we have attacked a capitol of abomination and perversion.”1 With the support of Allah. The 17th century French mathematician and Christian philosopher Pascal once said: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” With the support of Allah.

I was going in a very different direction with this sermon before Friday night. My first instinct was to scrap the homily about Hannah and just focus on the question. THE question. The critical, faith-busting question. The question we are all asking. The question to which we need an answer if we are to continue to call ourselves a people of a living, loving God. The question that all people of faith are asking this morning: How can a loving God allow this evil? Allow, let alone support, this evil. Because if God is in support of this terror, then there are only two logical options, at least for my own sense of understanding: Either I have completely misunderstood the nature of God OR the God of the Islamic State is not the God of Abraham.

That is not to say that the God of Islam is not the God of Abraham. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are rooted in the God of Abraham. All three religious traditions are people of the book – the Bible, the Torah and the Koran – all stories of how the God of Abraham walks with us and holds us to the highest standards of care for one another. Our three religious traditions share our grounding in the God of Abraham. And in our shared scripture, Abraham is a blessing; a blessing to all people, to all generations, to all of the children of God who will outnumber the stars.

Yesterday we had our annual diocesan convention in our newly renovated Cathedral of St. Paul. The average Sunday attendance at the Cathedral is around fifty worshiping Christians. But Christians are not the only children of Abraham who worship in our cathedral. For the last fifteen years, we have been sharing our space with a community of Muslims who worship there every Friday night. And the average Friday attendance of the Muslim worship service is 500. Our cathedral is a house of prayer for all people of God, Christians and Muslims alike…….and oddly enough, more Muslims than Christians. So how could the God that welcomes Christians and Muslims under that same roof allow, let alone support, the terror that was unleashed on Friday night? Because again, either we Christians and Muslims who share the Cathedral of St. Paul do not know the God of Abraham OR the God of the Islamic State is NOT the God of Abraham.

I commend to you the new book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called Not In God’s Name. It is both timely and profound. The book is about what the author calls “altruistic evil.” That is, evil done in God’s name. And his thesis is that if religion is causing this violence and evil in the world, then it is up to religion to bring it to an end. Sort of a version of the old adage: we must fight fire with fire. So rather than abandoning religion as destructive (which is often our propensity in these devastating times), rather than abdicating our claim that God is indeed a loving God, Rabbi Sacks says that the hope of the world rests in our reclaiming our faith; and in our commitment to that faith. The hope of the world depends on our willingness to stick with a God who will stick with us. And that, I think, is my main message for this morning. God is still with us, and not just with us, but praying for us to take the next step, to make our move to mend the nets and stop the violence……in the name of the God of Abraham.

Because the God of Abraham is weeping. The God of Abraham is mourning with the families who lost loved ones on Friday night. The God of Abraham, who is a blessing to all people, is wailing with those who are caring for the wounded and the dead. The God of Abraham is distressed that those who might have previously welcomed the desperate and dispossessed refugees from Syria will now think twice about their offer of hospitality to possible terrorists. And I believe that the God of Abraham is heartbroken that eight beloved sons have brutally taken dozens of innocent lives, and terrorized an entire civilization – and they have done it in God’s name. I imagine that God feels about that, the way each of us would feel if this atrocity had been committed in our names.

God is weeping. God is appalled. But this is not a new disappointment for God. We need only venture six chapters into the Book of Genesis before God regrets even creating humanity for the evil that we are capable of perpetrating. The scripture reads: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And God was sorry that God had made humankind on the earth. And it grieved God to God’s heart. So God said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created …for I am sorry that I have made them.’ Full stop. And then came the rain. Forty days and forty nights of it. Followed by…..the Good News, the promise. The rainbow that assures us that God will never again abandon God’s creation, God’s children…..no matter what their faith or none at all. God will never abandon us……and that is the us that includes them as well. All of us. And this story is common to all three Abrahamic religions. As is the story of Abraham, six chapters hence.

Like this passage from Genesis, this morning’s story of Hannah also seems an appropriate touchstone for this moment in our modern time. And I think it resonates on two accounts. First, this may be one of the best texts in our scripture to warn against our propensity to pre-judge others; in our modern parlance: to profile people. Eli saw Hannah’s lips move, but he did not hear her words, and so he jumped to some erroneous conclusions that simply were not true. They were the opposite of true. If we take Eli’s misguided approach, we will fear all Muslims. We will wonder if that guy with the dark skin and the Koran clutched to his breast is going to blow us up or pass us by. My friend Carter Heyward often recounts the wise words of her riding instructor who responded to her persistent fear of her own horse by saying: “Carter, as long as you are afraid of that horse, she’s gonna scare you.” Fear is largely an illusion of our own making. Not that the world is not dangerous, but that our fear is often much more destructive than the danger itself.

And the second message of great value and comfort in this morning’s reading, at least for me, is the clear and unequivocal assurance that nothing is impossible with God. This morning’s reading is a beacon of hope for we who are weary of the seemingly interminable violence in our world. It tells us that even when we feel that there is no way out, there is no hope for change, and there is nothing that we can do to make things right, the Spirit of God has not given up. I don’t believe that God decides to intervene on some things and not on others. But I do believe that the Spirit of God has much more patience than do we. And when we think it is all over; when we are at our wit’s end; when we are angry and afraid and alone and we are sure that there is no hope…….the Spirit of God is not so sure. The Spirit of God is still hope-full; the Spirit of God still abides. The Spirit of the God of Abraham is still a blessing to all people.

The popular commentaries not withstanding, I think that Hannah’s burden was not lifted by the deliverance of her son. Because Hannah’s burden was lifted before she conceived Samuel. Hannah broke her fast and was no longer sad, as soon as she finished talking with God. Once her prayer was spoken, she returned to her quarters with Elkanah, and they ate and drank, and the scripture says: Hannah was no longer sad. The conception of Samuel came after that. The conception of Samuel was the icing on the cake. The connection with God was the source of Hannah’s comfort, her healing, the restoration of her faith in herself and in her world. Her barren-ness allowed her to fear that God had abandoned her. But God had not abandoned her. And when she reconnected with God, when she realized that God was with her, her life was restored. Unexpectedly. And instantly.

Gracious God, never stop reminding us that you are here, and that you have felt our pain and our fear in the flesh of our brother Jesus. Never stop reminding us that you are here. Our hope and the hope of your world depends on it. Amen.

1 WBUR radio, Weekend Edition, Saturday, November 14th, 2015.

© November 15, 2015 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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