Help Us, Hannah

October 16, 2016  1 Samuel 1:2-11, 19-20; 2:1-10     Year 3 Narrative Lectionary

Last week, in this saga that is our story and God’s story, the Israelites, freedom still a new word on their lips, turned to worship a golden idol and were set straight by an angry and faithful Moses who stood up to God for them. Now, between last week and this week, a lot has happened. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, and then finally entered the promised land. Moses dies before they get there and Joshua leads them in. Then for several years there were wars between the Israelites and the people who were living in Cannan. There was no central government or leadership for the newly-formed Israel. From time to time, God would pick a person to serve as a judge to lead the people. So today’s story is just on the edge when the time of judges was ending and something called the royal era was to begin. Because the people wanted a king. So the final judge of this era is born in today’s story– Samuel. Samuel is responsible for picking the first king of Israel, Saul and will later anoint his successor, David.

But today’s story is not about Samuel so much as it is about his mother, Hannah. Hannah is one of 2 wives to Elkanah and she is unable to have children which, in those days, was an indicator of her worth as a person and was a sign that she must have done something wrong and was being punished by God.

Let me stop right here and proclaim to you that God does not punish women with infertility for past mistakes or wrong doing. I’m sorry if this kind of scripture hurts you if you have struggled with infertility and know that particular and singular deep grief. God is with you in that grief, not piling on to make it worse.

Now Hannah is not only unable to have children, her husband’s other wife is quite fertile. In fact, that’s what her name means in Hebrew Penninah. The Hebrew language is awesome that way. And not only can Penninah have kid after kid, she rubs it in. She taunts Hannah. Hannah is living in a mean girl situation here. And her husband is playing favorites and not even in a subtle way. Elkanah gives more food and, we can imagine, more attention and affection to Hannah which adds fuel to the fire for the other wife. And then, not even coming close to understanding her situation, her husband who we can only assume means well, approaches his sobbing wife and asks: “Oh, Hannah, why are you crying? Why aren’t you eating? And why are you so upset? Am I not of more worth to you than ten sons?” 

The disconnect is staggering, isn’t it?

But let’s not get sidetracked here, shall we? Because this story is about Hannah.

Hannah endures her jealous co-wife’s abuse.

Hannah endures the thoughtlessness of her husband’s questions.

Hannah endures the stares and whispers about her on-going infertility.

Hannah endures her grief, yet she does not wallow in it. She turns to God and she prays. She prays from her grief. She prays for a future, she prays for new life.

The part of the story we skipped over this morning is that Eli, the priest, is in the temple as Hannah is praying and witnesses her prayer. Now, she is in deep grief and she’s crying and isn’t praying out loud but is moving her lips. And as she is praying to God that she will give God a servant, Eli approaches her and accuses her of being drunk! So desperate is her prayer, so visible is her grief she appears being drunk. She assures him that she is not drunk and lets him in on her prayer to which Eli assures her God will answer.

And wouldn’t you know, Hannah gets pregnant and after the baby Samuel is weaned, she brings him to the temple to be raised by Eli in service of the Lord, making good on her conversation with God.

This is a staggering story isn’t it? Hannah’s prayer is answered and so she does what she said she would do. She gives up her son. I imagine the song she sings, this prayer song, is filled with wonder and joy that can only come from deep grief. Just think of the faith this woman prays and sings.

Because the song she sings is not a song rejoicing in the beauty of her child, the blessedness of her life, the miracle of birth.  No, Hannah writes an anthem for the rest of us to sing when we are despairing, when we have lost hope. In her joy, she has not forgotten her despair and the despair of the world. She sings and prays for the hopeless – she gives us a prayer and a song when we are hopeless. She reminds us that our faith is in a God who makes and keeps promises to love us, to sustain us, to be with us.

she sings, Nothing and no one is holy like God, no rock mountain like our God.

It is as if Hannah chose not to believe in her barrenness but instead in the rock solid promise of God. And while her story does include a fulfillment of her prayer that we can’t always claim for ourselves, Hannah has set the stage for prayers and songs of grief and joy to our faithful God. She gives a template for praise and thanks that points to other people, that tips our expectations upside down because that’s what God’s promises are capable of doing – turning the world upside down. Here are just a few examples of people who have taken Hannah’s song and turned into their own:

Mary, the mother of Jesus will riff on Hannah’s prayer after the angel visits her and tells her she will give birth to the savior of the world, something any mother knows will not end the way she wants. And that loss for that mother shakes the foundations of power to lift up the lowly.

Sojourner Truth, a black woman, a former slave who fought to end slavery gave a powerful Hannah-like song speech to The Women’s Rights Convention in 1852 in Akron, Ohio, declaring that God tips the world upside down through creation of the first woman. Hear a stunning version of it right here.

Patty Wetterling has sung from her deep grief and sustained and sung out hope for 27 years and now continues her song, always pointing toward helping the most vulnerable, never giving up on the kindness of humanity.

Michelle Obama sang out this past week in defense of all humanity, especially women and girls of all ages and colors; defending them, us, in the face of powerful, institutionalized sexism and abuse.

Brooke Bauer, a friend of mine with 4 children of her own, sings out in grief and joy and hope for the wandering Israelites…I mean the present-day refugees – the most vulnerable among them women and their infant babies, by helping them to find safe and dry places to feed their children; buying diapers by the vanload, putting up tents and equipping and employing medical professionals to provide life-saving help. You can find out more about the organizations work right here at Nurture Project International.

Hannah, please teach us to pray like you pray.

Hannah, please teach us to sing like you sing.

Not just for our own selves but for the world. Help us to be vulnerable enough to pray from our deepest sadness, to tell God the things we cannot possibly tell anyone else.

Help us Hannah to then sing songs in praise of God for those who cannot find the words to pray. Help us, Hannah, to pray for those who linger in the darkness of hopelessness, to give voice to their lament and to be the voice of hope.

Because the promise is that God will bring about life in the midst of death.  Because God doesn’t show up in the world as evidence. God shows up in people and voices, in hands and feet, as  promise.