Sermon Seeds: Praise the Holy One
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 28)
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Sermon Seeds Year C from The Pilgrim Press – Order now
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Praise the Holy One
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
In those days, things were rough: at the end of the book of Judges, we hear that “there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). This is not a good situation, but it does sound familiar to us in our own culture, when many of us are old enough to remember the motto of the 1960’s: “Do your own thing.” As the fabric of our society loosened and frayed, more and more of us went it alone, doing what we wanted and focusing on our own needs and desires. Perhaps “authority” had earned the distrust and disdain in both settings, and ancient Hebrews and modern Americans alike reacted against bad leadership. Still, it seems to be human nature to gravitate, especially in chaos or on the edge of chaos, toward having someone strong in charge, so it’s understandable that the people of ancient Israel decided that they needed a king to rule over them.
Telling the story later, the Scripture establishes the significance of this development, so the blessing and guidance of God are important to its success. And God often blesses and guides – and works – through human agents. Not just human agents, but humble human agents. True, Elkanah is prosperous and important enough to have two wives, many children, and the means to travel with them. Still, there’s nothing particularly charismatic, nothing special about him that we might expect of the father of the great prophet Samuel, who would end the period of the Judges and begin the story of the monarchy. John C. Holbert points out that the “nondescript” Elkanah was even the great-grandson of “Tohu (Hebrew for ‘waste’)” (The Lectionary Commentary: Old Testament and Acts). Elkanah’s words in the story illustrate the ordinariness of his own preoccupations while his wife dreams of a son whose whole life would be dedicated to God.
Another remarkable woman
The son of Hannah and Elkanah, Samuel, is one of those “change agents” that God uses, in this stage of the long story between exodus and exile, to initiate the monarchy that would produce the great king, David. In the two books that bear Samuel’s name, we learn more about the prophet as we read the entire story, but not in this short passage. In our text this week we hear that Samuel’s birth, indeed his conception, is remarkable because of a woman, his mother Hannah. After two weeks of hearing the story of Ruth and Naomi, we spend another week seeking – and finding – God at work on the margins of society, where the women of the Bible lived.
Like Sarah before her and Elizabeth much later, Hannah is “barren,” putting her, in a patriarchal society, even more at the mercy of a man. However, like Rachel before her, Hannah also seems to be the better-loved wife. She has Elkanah’s love in spite of her inability to produce a child, which is her primary function and means to honor in that culture. (We certainly have heard this story before, about the barren wife in a patriarchal society who longs to produce an heir.)
Elkanah’s profession of love for Hannah just for her own self sounds remarkably modern, and is perhaps a glimpse of what marriage is, at its best, in any culture or time. Or could it be, as several writers observe, that his response to Hannah’s suffering exhibits insensitivity, or worse, self-absorption? Does Elkanah’s question about his being worth more than ten sons sound, as Martin Copenhaver suggests, like the well-intentioned but often hurtful advice to “count your blessings” when someone is suffering from loss and grief? (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). Presumably, we don’t need to say very much about “sons,” rather than “sons and daughters,” as a standard of happiness, but in any case Elkanah’s self-esteem is in great shape, if he thinks he’s worth more than ten sons to his wife.
The world revolves around Elkanah
Jo Ann Hackett points out the “easy-for-you-to-say” nature of Elkanah’s words of comfort, since he already had plenty of sons and daughters by Peninnah “to remember and honor him” (“1 and 2 Samuel,” The Women’s Bible Commentary). It makes his response sound as if the world is organized around him; we wouldn’t be likely to call Elkanah “other-centered.” But John C. Holbert recognizes that we may find different meanings between the lines of this conversation, and hear these words in different ways. He also wonders if Hannah really does receive a “double” portion of meat, because the Hebrew version says she received one, not two, portions, just like Penninah’s children (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). How would we expect Hannah to feel at that dinner table? However, it’s difficult to reconcile this scenario with verse 5, where Elkanah gives this portion of meat “because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.” It does read as if Hannah is the beloved wife, even if Elkanah is clumsy (and culturally conditioned) in expressing his affection.
No wonder, then, that Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, may resent Hannah, taunting her mercilessly for being unable to have a child. When Elkanah lavishes extra attention (and perhaps portions) on Hannah and clearly loves her better, one wonders if Penninah is without feeling, or if, in her own way, she is suffering, too. It must have been heartbreaking to feel eclipsed, in spite of fulfilling the expectations of those around you. No one can control the feelings of another, no one can make their spouse love them, so things worked against both women, each in her own way.
“Barrenness” or hidden life?
The theme of barrenness recurs in the Old Testament, as we read last week in Walter Brueggemann’s discussion around Naomi’s barren then suddenly fertile future in the Book of Ruth, which promised the same kind of future to all Israel. We recall that Brueggemann sees in barrenness the lack of a future (The Prophetic Imagination), so Hannah’s pregnancy, an amazing gift from God in response to prayer and promises, is fulfillment and future not only for her but for all Israel, for Samuel will be the man of God who helps Israel establish a monarchy.
With a strong leader, the people wouldn’t just do what was right in their own eyes, but would be led by, and accountable to, something greater than themselves. And that “something,” as we have noted, would be blessed by God. It is remarkable but consistent with the biblical narrative that great things seem to come from what looks like nothing, from humbleness, from what appears small or barren. It reminds me of the desert, and the way a land that appears dry and without life is actually teeming with all sorts of activity, and all sorts of possibility. Is that why we’re drawn to the wilderness to refresh our spirits? God does amazing things in the most unlikely places, and through the most unlikely people.
Perhaps, for us today, the notion of God “ordaining” political leaders is hard to translate. In fact, centuries of religious wars and other troubles make some folks wince when political leaders claim they are “called by God” to their positions of power. But we might also long for our systems of leadership – how we choose our leaders, and how we hold them accountable – to be worthy of God’s blessing, if they are fashioned in such a way that they further our shared ability to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
Decorum and heartfelt prayer
At the other end (at the bottom, really) of the power spectrum in this story, however, is a distressed and seemingly powerless woman at prayer. Shiloh is a very important place of worship, with the ark and the tabernacle present (the temple, of course, does not yet exist), so the priest Eli must have a heightened sense of his own importance and responsibilities, and keeping the order would be one of them. A person can’t just come into the holy place (walking right past the important man at the door) and be odd, or drunk, or out of order. We have to maintain our decorum! But there is something deeper going on here. There’s the problem, the uneasiness, of people going “straight to God” with their prayers, without the intermediary the priest represents. That, too, may ring a bell for us today, if we think we can’t speak directly to God but need a minister to do so for us.
Eugene Peterson has described the scene as a contrast between the highly ritualized, liturgical worship of Eli’s priesthood and the deeply personal “prayer of the heart” uttered by the desperate Hannah, who takes her case directly to God. Ironically, Peterson observes that the rabbis would consider Hannah the “model of authentic prayer” (First and Second Samuel, Westminster Bible Companion). And of course, through Scripture, her prayer has been long-remembered, and was even echoed by Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her own time of maternal need. When we remember and tell the story of Hannah in every generation, her model of trusting prayer influences the life of the world far beyond the beginning of one monarchy long ago.
Taking the long view of childbearing
The content of her prayer, however, is strangely confounding. Reading only this passage from the lectionary makes us wonder why Hannah vows to give back the very gift she wants and needs so desperately. Jo Ann Hackett reminds us, first, that having a son would validate Hannah in her society, and second, that Hannah was taking the long view about childbearing. We know from the verses that follow this week’s passage that God answers Hannah’s heartfelt prayer with the child that she then returns to God right after the baby is weaned (and after she has given him a name that marks him as a gift from God). Can we imagine taking a baby to the place of worship, as the end of chapter one recounts, “She left him there for the Lord” (v. 28c)? Hannah has achieved respectability by producing a son, even if she doesn’t get to keep him. How she can bear to give up such a precious gift? Hackett explains that Hannah had a plan, and it worked, because a “firstfruits” gift – of animals, of the harvest – was given “in hopes of receiving in return the blessing of continued fertility”; we know it works because we read in chapter 2 that Hannah, remarkably, produced five children after Samuel (“1 and 2 Samuel,” The Women’s Bible Commentary).
Still, there was no assurance of those other children when Hannah fulfilled her vow and took Samuel to the house of the Lord and left him there. While our theme this week speaks of praise for the Holy One, Bruce Birch urges us to see such praise as “the giving back of grace,” a spiritual practice we would do well to learn (“I and II Samuel,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 2). What does “giving back grace” look like in your life?
A prayerful woman
Hannah is important in the history of Israel long after the story moves on to (male) prophets and kings who have much more power and receive much more attention in the Bible. Her name, which means “grace,” fittingly begins the story of the monarchy, what Walter Brueggemann calls “a tale of ‘grace alone.'” However, this broken-hearted, misunderstood and mis-judged woman also leads us to further reflection on our own prayer life. Brueggemann provides a thought-provoking commentary on where prayer has gone in most of our churches and our lives today. He is keenly observant and discomforting as well, not unlike those Old Testament prophets about whom he writes so evocatively. Hannah comes from “a praying people” who put God not just in the center of their life but all through it. And right at the center of their prayer life is the prayer of petition, the “rawest and most elemental form of prayer” addressed to “a real partner in anticipation of a real response,” even if that response is not exactly what they ask for.
Brueggemann characterizes the prayer of Israel as marked by “trustful theological innocence” that we lack today in our skeptical, scientifically minded society (and church). He says that we find ways to “adjust” our prayer so that it becomes “anemic” in its expectations, or “catharsis” for our emotions, or just “a group process of sharing” (Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes). (Did I mention the part about being keenly observant and discomforting?)
How do we pray?
I find it deeply moving to imagine that Hannah felt that the God of all creation, the God of the ages, would listen and have mercy on her. She must have believed that God had a tender and generous heart. How else could she share such a prayer from her own heart? Perhaps Hannah, our ancient mother in faith, could teach us better how to pray, just as mothers do today; perhaps reading and hearing her story could have an impact on our prayer life, individually and communally, right now. What if we examined our spiritual practice each day (do we think about God only on Sunday?), and the worship we share in our congregations, and searched for the places where our prayer springs from our deepest need and a “trustful theological innocence” that believes, as Hannah did, that we are human beings loved by the God who hears the prayers of the “little” ones, the broken, the poor, the desperate?
We live in a culture very different (at least in some ways) from the culture of Hannah, Elkanah and Samuel. Those ancestors of ours led what Eugene Peterson calls “large lives” lived in “the largeness of God….God is the country in which they live.” Right in the middle of those “large lives,” but also in our own little, fragile yet remarkably enduring, frayed yet often inspiring lives, that’s where God finds what God will use to transform, to save, to heal, the world. Peterson then cautions us that God is “the leading character in the story of our life,” and yet we should not look for God in our life stories so much as “to see our stories in God’s” (“Introduction to I/II Samuel,” The Message). It seems to me that if we spend much time in spiritual reflection, we mostly search for God in a situation or incident in our lives. Peterson adjusts our perspective radically, and reminds me of something I read some years ago by someone else: “You have heard it said, ‘God is in my heart,’ but we should really say, ‘I am in the heart of God.'” Where do we fit into the story of God?
Bringing God with us into church
And so we come to church and seek some kind of connection with God, a sense of God’s presence in a way that is more intense than in our daily lives. Hannah walked in (right past the priest) a woman of faith, pressed down but trusting and ready to pour out her heart and expose her need, and she walked out a woman of faith, radiant with confident joy that what she needed would be coming her way. Eugene Peterson observes (cautions us?) that we’re not changed in a place of worship, but instead, it “intensifies whatever we bring to it” (First and Second Samuel, Westminster Bible Companion Series). I’m reminded of something the character Shug says in Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple: “Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.” What sort of God did Hannah bring with her that day, to the place of prayer? Where did she find herself in the the story of God?
Hannah finds her voice
In and perhaps through this time of prayer, however, Hannah does experience transformation, as Brueggemann points out. Note the contrast between her bitterly tearful, hushed, anguished prayer in chapter one, and the “exuberant, energized” song of praise she sings in chapter two, what Brueggemann calls “Israel’s most dangerous song” (Reverberations of Faith). This is the song that will inspire the song of Mary, the Magnificat, which we still pray today, perhaps without noticing the kind of radical and discomforting transformation it describes, of the mighty brought down and the lowly lifted up. The lives of these women, and many like them on the margins long ago and today as well, have been transformed by God. Martin Copenhaver suggests that a story like Hannah’s (and surely, Mary’s) reminds clergy of an uncomfortable truth, that the amazing things that happen “in holy places” happen because of God, not because of anything we do (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). Actually, I think we can find a lot of comfort in that thought. It’s not all up to us, is it?
Hannah’s prayer is persistent and quite bold. Some prayer is persistent and quietly humble. I remember my oldest brother asking me how my granddaughter was doing (she struggles with a serious medical condition), and he said, very humbly, very gently, “I want you to know that I pray for her every day.” Every day. Not just in church, but every day. After our parents died, my sister and I were sorting through their “things” as they broke up housekeeping, and among them we found multiple versions of our dad’s daily prayer list, with many names added through the years. What a testament of faith and trust in God – God at the center of our lives, and our lives inside God’s own story.
Extended, trusting prayer
One of the finest pieces of literary extended prayer of a person on the margins is the journal of Celie in The Color Purple (again, by Alice Walker). In her most painful experiences (and even mired in doubt) and in her exuberant joy, Celie sees God as someone who listens to, and cares about, people like her; God, we come to believe, surely “reads” Celie’s letters: “Dear God….” In the course of her long and often painful story, Celie seems to find her place in the story of God.
In our churches and in our homes, on our deathbeds and in hospital rooms, in swerving cars and moments of desolation and loneliness, we approach God with the prayers of our hearts. What a challenge it is to encounter one another in every moment of life, not knowing what is in the heart of another, but honoring their prayer and their longing and their pain nevertheless.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Charles H. Spurgeon, 19th century
“Groanings which cannot be uttered are often prayers which cannot be refused.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 20th century
“‘Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky — up — up — up — into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.'”
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, 20th century
“‘O God – please give him back! I shall keep asking You.'”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at [God’s] disposition, and listening to [God’s] voice in the depth of our hearts.”
Thérèse de Lisieux, 19th century
“For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 20th century
“You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.”
Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
“‘Help'” is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray–with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, ‘Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.'”
1 Samuel 1:4-20
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by 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. Her 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?”
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. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She 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. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But 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. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
1 Samuel 2:1-10
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
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
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.”
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
Protect me, O God,
for in you I take refuge.
I say to God, “You are my God;
I have no good apart from you.”
As for the holy ones in the land,
they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.
Those who choose another god
multiply their sorrows;
their drink offerings of blood
I will not pour out
or take their names upon my lips.
God is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me
in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
I bless God who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep God always before me;
because God is at my right hand,
I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad,
and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. [And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.]
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.