Monday, October 19, 2020

"Hannah and Her Song" - October 18, 2020

Text: 1 Samuel 1:1-20, 2:1-10


If you are like my family, you may be thinking about how to navigate the holidays in the midst of a pandemic.  We have pretty well decided that as far as extended family goes, it’s going to have to be a virtual gathering.  Which is really sad and yet another casualty of the pandemic.

For those families who will not be getting together, I guess maybe a small consolation is that it helps eliminate those awkward conversations with relatives who are outspoken with their opinions on politics and religion and other hot-button topics, and can’t be appropriate and can’t leave it alone when it is clear their opinions are very different than yours.  The consolation may be that at least you don’t have to be around that cousin who just makes you crazy.

I’m thinking about that this morning because our scripture today includes one of those big family meals on a holiday, and this family had some issues.

Over the past Sundays, our scripture readings have included some of the big names of the Old Testament.  Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses.  This morning our two readings focus on Hannah.

Hannah is married to Elkanah.  Each year the family would travel to Shiloh for a religious festival.  This was before Jerusalem was an Israelite city.  At this point, Israel was more of a confederacy of tribes, with judges providing leadership but with no king ruling over the whole nation, no centralized authority.  There were various shrines, such as the one at Shiloh, where the different tribes of Israel would offer sacrifice and worship.  We’re not sure what festival or observance this was, but it apparently was not only a religious observance; there was a feast, a big meal.  

Now while Hannah was married to Elkanah, Elkanah also had another wife named Peninnah.  Hannah was unable to have children, and because of that Peninnah lorded it over her.  She rubbed it in her face.  In that culture, a woman’s worth was very much tied to her children.  

So the whole family travels to Shiloh for something akin to a family Thanksgiving dinner.  And it is the worst Thanksgiving ever.  Peninnah provoked Hannah, irritated her, mocked her.  And the thing was, when they went home afterwards, Hannah would still have to face Peninnah.  It wasn’t like that cousin that drives you crazy; Peninnah was always there.

For his part, Elkanah is trying to console Hannah.  He tells her that she matters to him, that he loves her whether she has any children or not.  “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he asks.  Now here is a pro tip: while Elkanah’s heart is in the right place, asking “Am I not worth more to you than ten sons” is probably not the best way to offer consolation.

At the dinner table, Elkanah gives Hannah a double portion of this special meal to show his love for her.  But with the ridicule of Peninnah, it is just too much.  She refuses to eat.  She leaves the table in tears.  Like I said, it is not a great Thanksgiving.

In her distress, Hannah goes to the temple.  She prays and weeps bitterly.  She tries to make a deal with God.  God, if you will just give me a son, I will dedicate him to you.  I promise.

It is a bargaining prayer.  Maybe you have prayed like that before.  Lord, if you can just get me out of this jam, I swear, I will change my ways.  I promise.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of this kind of prayer.  It’s not the way I generally pray.  And what if you pray like this and your prayer is not answered?  Maybe it is easier not to pray in such a bold way.

But it does show Hannah’s desperation.  It shows the depth of her pain.  She is even willing to make a quid pro quo with God, saying that if she has a son, he will be dedicated to God’s service in the temple.  And this is not a small thing: she was willing to give up having her son around as her social security in her old age, if God would just bless her with a son.       

The priest Eli observes Hannah and he thinks she is drunk.  “Woman, stop making a drunken spectacle of yourself,” he says.  I mean, there had been eating and drinking and carrying on – everybody was kind of tailgating for the Lord, and Eli assumed Hannah had a bit too much.  Still, this is not an especially good model for pastoral care.  I mean, he could have simply asked her if she was OK.  

But she tells him, No; I am not drunk; I have had neither wine nor strong drink.  Do not think I am a worthless woman.  I am simply a troubled woman pouring out my heart to God.  I have been speaking out of my anxiety and great vexation.  This was true; she had left the big feast and had not eaten or drank anything.

And Eli says, “Go in peace; may God grant the petition you have made.”

And she feels better.  Whether it was Eli’s encouraging words, or whether it was simply the catharsis of pouring out her heart to God, she ate and drank and was no longer sad.  And before long, she had a son, who was named Samuel.

That is the story of what happened.  And then, Susie in Pittsburgh read for us Hannah’s response.  It is Hannah’s song. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, found in Luke, is similar to it and modeled after it.

Hannah’s song speaks of the great reversal that God will make.  

The poor, the hungry, the lowly, the hurting, those filled with sadness will be lifted up.  The rich, the mighty, the powerful, those who have all the control and all the advantages, will be brought low.

Hannah is not asking that God just level the playing field.  She is asking that the world be turned upside down.  Many of the Proverbs view wealth as a blessing from God.  But Hannah’s song offers a different view, the view that God sides with the poor.

Now if things are just turned upside down, if you are just flipping things, then someone is always on the bottom.  But there is another way of thinking about this.  Perhaps it is the case that for those who are calling all the shots, a just and equitable world feels like the world has been turned upside down.  

In Hannah’s world, and down through the ages, many have accumulated wealth and power by taking advantage of the poor.  That is why we find time and again admonitions against abusing the widow and of caring for the alien in your land.

Gaining wealth at the expense of those on the bottom is a time-honored practice.  We see it all the time.  In this pandemic, the wealthiest have done fabulously well, while those who could least afford to lose jobs are the ones who have lost them.  

Hannah’s song, her vision, gives hope to those who are on the bottom – those who are left out and those who are losing hope.

It is interesting that in calling for justice, sometimes the most effective voice is the most vulnerable voice.  Martin Luther King was the great leader, but it was Rosa Parks choosing to sit in the wrong seat that set off the civil rights movement.
The most effective voice calling for action to save our climate is Greta Thunburg, who after all this time is still just 17 years old.
And then the strongest international voice calling for gender equality in education is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban as a teenager and recovered to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.
And then there is Mary the mother of Jesus, a young unmarried woman whose own song heralded the birth of Jesus and the changes he would bring.

In a sense, these women are spiritual descendants of Hannah, a vulnerable woman crying out for justice.

In the Old Testament, not many women are named.  If mentioned at all, they are mostly mentioned as wife of, or daughter of, somebody important.  Hannah is not in a family of means.  She is not married to anyone especially significant.  She has not done anything notable to build a reputation.  She is just an ordinary married woman with no children, which was about as socially insignificant as you could be.  And yet we have not only her name, we have her words – and the words of a woman are especially rare in the Old Testament.  We have her name and her story and her voice crying out for justice.

Hannah’s song ends by saying that God will give strength to the king, God’s anointed.  Do you remember?  Israel does not have a king.  Not yet.  Hannah’s son Samuel will become the great prophet and Samuel will anoint the king, in time anointing King David.  Hannah anticipates a time when Israel will have a king who will establish justice in the land.  She celebrates God’s solution before it has even happened.

Well, what about us?  What about us living in this very strange time, in this sometimes scary and chaotic world in which we have to face multiple crises?

Like Hannah, our lives can be filled with sadness, with pain, with disappointment.  And it is within our faith to ask for something different from God – even to demand something different from God.  That is not the way we usually pray.  But maybe there are those times when we need to take our situation and we need to take God seriously enough to pray in that way.  It’s OK.  God can handle it.

And then this story serves as a reminder for us that God is in the business of bringing about justice.  It is for us to pray for that, to call for that, to work for that.  And like Hannah we can look toward and anticipate God’s victory, even when we cannot yet see it.

Now let me acknowledge that in some ways stories like this can be problematic.  What about those who suffer from infertility and long for a child?  What about those who for whom everything doesn’t work out in the long run as it does for Hannah?  This may story not be entirely helpful for everyone.  

But it does serve to tell us that we can pour out our souls before God – and we can look toward and live into God’s justice, even when we cannot see it yet.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

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