Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Troubled, The Brave: Sermon

On July 3, we read the story of Hannah and Peninnah in the Hebrew Bible.  It's a story of one woman's courage in a crisis and the transformative power of her prayer.  How might you and I learn to trust the pain within, make space for it, and turn it over?  Will new possibilities emerge in our prayerfulness?  Hannah's story is bold, and full of hope.

1 Samuel 1:1-20: Hannah Rises

Now there was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the highlands of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah. He was from the tribe of Ephraim, and he was the son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph. Elkanah had two wives, one named Hannah and the other named Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah didn’t.
Every year this man would leave his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of heavenly forces in Shiloh, where Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas were the Lord’s priests. Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the Lord had kept her from conceiving. And because the Lord had kept Hannah from conceiving, her rival would make fun of her mercilessly, just to bother her. So that is what took place year after year. Whenever Hannah went to the Lord’s house, Peninnah would make fun of her. Then she would cry and wouldn’t eat anything.

“Hannah, why are you crying?” her husband Elkanah would say to her. “Why won’t you eat? Why are you sad? Aren’t I worth more to you than ten sons?”

One time, after eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. (Now Eli the priest was sitting in the chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s temple.) Hannah was very upset and couldn’t stop crying as she prayed to the Lord. Then she made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”

As she kept praying before the Lord, Eli watched her mouth. Now Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent, so Eli thought she was drunk.

“How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her.

“No sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!”

Eli responded, “Then go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him.”

“Please think well of me, your servant,” Hannah said. Then the woman went on her way, ate some food, and wasn’t sad any longer.

They got up early the next morning and worshipped the Lord. Then they went back home to Ramah. Elkanah had sex with his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, which means “I asked the Lord for him.”

"The Troubled, The Brave"
A Meditation on 1 Samuel
Dave Grishaw-Jones
July 3, 2016

So the crux of the matter is this: Peninnah had children, but Hannah did not.  Again and again, and then again, Peninnah conceived in her womb, carried these tiny miracles to term, delivered them to Elkanah her husband and an adoring, grateful tribe.  Peninnah was a star.  Having children was everything to her kin.  God’s blessing.  The future’s promise.  Longevity and sustenance.  And Peninnah had children, at least a handful of them, but Hannah did not.

Now clearly, this was a matter of chance, a matter of biological whimsy and good fortune. Be that as it may: the two lived in radically different social worlds, separate and unequal social worlds.  

I want to suggest that the way to encounter this text, to feel its sting and maybe then its power, is to read it through lenses of privilege and status.  Peninnah was celebrated among other women, other men, her elders, but Hannah was not.  Peninnah had accomplished something, but Hannah had not.  Peninnah’s children had books to read, college funds to tap, futures to imagine, Hannah had none of that.  Peninnah had privilege, status in her community; Hannah had Elkanah’s affection perhaps, maybe his sympathy.  But not much else.  She was almost invisible, Hannah, almost invisible.

And if you’ve ever been there, if you’ve ever felt that, if you’ve ever questioned the meaning and value of your life—YOUR life—in the scheme of things: you’ve known something like Hannah’s pain.  You’ve known something like Hannah’s despair.  What it is to feel invisible.  What we have this morning is a story about that.  It’s a story about the ways the world can crush the human spirit, the ways culture and tradition can marginalize your soul.

And all this, all this, was most troubling, most painful for Hannah, when they’d all travel together on pilgrimage to God’s sanctuary in Shiloh.  Annually, a festival of faith.  Annually, a celebration of God’s provision and God’s grace.  At Shiloh, the whole tribe would rejoice and the whole tribe would dance and the whole tribe would praise God for God’s overwhelming generosity and kindness.  God’s fertility and God’s abundance.  And for Hannah, it stung; in her soul, it just stung.  The rejoicing, and the dancing, and the praising.  If you’ve been there, if you’ve felt what Hannah felt, you know.  It all just stung so hard.  Because in the midst of it all, in the midst of the festival, she was just about invisible.  Forgotten in the festival.  A footnote to the feast.

Have you ever felt like that?  Like a footnote to the feast?  Like there’s this great dance going on, and YOU don’t know the steps.  Or nobody thought to teach you the steps.  Like the church keeps talking about abundance, but you’ve got this knot called scarcity in your gut, and this tiny, scary balance in your bank account.  Forgotten in the festival.  A footnote to the feast.  It stings hard.  In your soul.  Does anybody see me?  Does anybody care?

It had to be like that for Hannah.  Because she had no children, even God seemed disinterested, even God seemed dismissive.  Because she had no children, Peninnah received extra food and abundant blessing, the adoring attention of family and friends.  And because Hannah had no children, Peninnah turned to shaming her and sneering at her and mocking her.  Mercilessly.  And isn’t that a heartbreaking word?  Right there in the text?  Mercilessly.  And Hannah would just cry.  You know this.  She’d just cry and hurt.  And she wouldn’t eat anything.  Again, wanting to be invisible.  Expecting to be invisible.


And at just that moment, at the moment of her deepest despair, Elkanah would kind of reach out, wouldn’t he?  Elkanah, the husband, the great patriarch: he’s an interesting character in all this, isn’t he?  He was living up to his responsibilities, it seems, his tribal obligations.  On the face of it, he seemed quite kind, compassionate even.  “Why are you crying, Hannah?” he’d say to her.  “Why don’t you eat?  Why are you sad?  Don’t you know that I love you?”  It seems in the text that Elkanah genuinely cared for Hannah, recognized her pain, and felt a deep measure of kindness for her.

But in this case—and here’s an important biblical insight—in this case kindness simply wasn’t enough.  Kindness simply wasn’t enough.  Not for a woman mocked mercilessly, within her tribe, within her family; not for a woman chastised and impoverished; not for a woman dismissed, whose gifts and energies and passions were invisible to those around her.  Kindness wasn’t enough.  Pity wouldn’t make her whole.

So one time, one year, one day, Hannah rose.  She didn’t wait for Elkanah to suggest it or OK it.  She didn’t wait for the tribal council to legislate it.  She didn’t wait for a friend to go with her.  One time, one year, one day, Hannah rose.  Something inside her, something inside Hannah said it was time to speak out.  It was time to go directly to God.  It was time to insist on God’s own blessing.  And you know what happened.  How Hannah rose that day and she presented herself before God.  How she rose that day and went to the sanctuary and spoke directly to Yahweh, the God of all Being, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Liberator of her people.  And how she wept before God and prayed there to God.  And how she insisted on God’s blessing.  And how God remembered Hannah and answered her prayer.

You know, the bible evolved in a patriarchal age; and its theology, its language, its metaphors, they’re all dependent on patriarchal understandings and assumptions about culture and theology and politics and gender.  There’s no doubt about this.  Patriarchy is the very context of all these stories and all this wisdom.  A good bit of it questions patriarchy, to be sure, in light of grace, in light of monotheism and Sinai and the gospel.  But patriarchy is the air we breathe when we’re reading scripture.   And that’s certainly true this morning.  Elkanah’s patriarchal shadow hovers in the background.  Eli’s patriarchal shadow hovers in the background.  And yet, Hannah rose.  And yet, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.

It’s really quite amazing, then, that a story like this—embedded in patriarchy—survives and shines like a bright light in a dark room.  Through great epochs, so many generations, even centuries.  I imagine Hebrew women through ancient times, keeping this story alive, passing it on from circle to circle, from sister to sister, from generation to generation, until at last it was written down.  What a remarkable process.  What an empowering process, and what a compelling and courageous figure.

One time, one year, one day, Hannah rose.  She didn’t take Elkanah along.  She didn’t wait for Peninnah to come around.  She didn’t even wait for her own mood to turn.  Hannah just rose.  She just went.  Something within her said NOW, some spirit, some courage, some defiance said NOW.  And she presented herself before Yahweh, the God of all Being, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Liberator of her people.


Now biblically, this story is so much more than a footnote, so much more than a sweet

yarn about a spunky woman.  It sits, as you know, at the front end of First and Second Samuel, at the front end of the story of Israel’s prophetic tradition.  How will God’s people govern themselves?  How will God’s people manage and resolve conflict?  How will God’s people remain faithful to the radically inclusive, radically just, radically forgiving traditions of Moses?  These are huge questions for God’s people, huge questions for Israel; and in First and Second Samuel, and then in First and Second Kings, we wrestle with them, we struggle to articulate God’s purpose and our vocation.  And we do it all in the nitty, gritty context of human history and governance, in the nitty, gritty context of human conflict and hope.

So this story, Hannah’s story, Elkanah’s story, Peninnah’s story, Eli’s story sits right there: at the front end of Israel’s prophetic tradition.

And Hannah’s rising, and Hannah’s insisting, and Hannah’s urging God to bless her and remember her and see her: this is not only a defining moment in Hannah’s life, but a crucial moment for her community, for her nation, for her people.

Two last things, then, about this story:

First, you should know about Hannah.  You should tell your daughters and your sons, and your granddaughters and your grandsons, and your nieces and your nephews about Hannah.  Hers is a story that we ought to tell right alongside all the others: alongside Moses and Miriam, alongside Ruth and Naomi, alongside Jesus and Mary, alongside Peter and John.  She’s a shining light and a powerful mentor to all of us who resist our own invisible and insist on God’s love for ourselves and for our neighbors.  So tell Hannah’s story to the people you love.  Keep it alive.

And just as importantly, keep it alive in your hearts.  Every one of us hits this bottom every once in a while.  You may be hitting it now.  It’s despair.  It’s self-contempt sometimes.  It’s deep, dark doubt.  Sometimes it’s a mean and merciless bottom indeed.  And there may even be a Peninnah or two around, to remind you and to mock you.  Every one of us hits this bottom a time or two.  

And when you do--when despair is all you know, when Peninnah sneers and nothing makes a difference--when you're in trouble, take it to God.  Take it to God not in a sweet, quiet moment of surrender.  Not in a self-defeating pity fest.  Not like that at all.  When you're in trouble, take it to God like Hannah takes it to God.  Defiantly.  Determinedly.  Decidedly.  Sit yourself down and let God know where you are, who you are and what you need.

Because Hannah rises.  That's what Hannah does.  That's how Hannah goes.  Hannah

rises.  Let that be your good news today, your gospel today, your hope today.  Hannah rises.  The spirit in Hannah rises.  The courage in Hannah rises.  The yearning in Hannah rises.  And so it is for you.  So it can be, so it will be, for you.  Take your trouble to God like Hannah takes it to God.  Because you are God's.  And God will listen.

So you will rise, maybe even today, maybe even here, and present yourself before the Lord.  You will rise, maybe even today, maybe even at communion, and claim God’s grace for your very own, and claim God’s calling in your one precious life, and claim God’s future for yourself.  And in the broken bread, you’ll see a new life offered and blessed and beginning now.  And in the rippling juice of a cup, you’ll taste a new promise, a promise with your name on it and your country’s future in it.

Maybe Hannah’s story is your story.  I believe that Hannah’s story is your story.  And this is just the beginning.