Praise the Holy One
Sunday, November 15
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Praise the Holy One
God our rock, you hear the cries of your people and answer the prayers of the faithful. Grant us the boldness of Hannah that we may persist in prayer, confident in your steadfast love. Amen.
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.”
All Readings For This Sunday
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hebrews 10:11-14, [15-18], 19-25
1. What are the ways we find “self-worth” today?
2. Who are the “behind-the-scenes” people who set things in motion today?
3. What does “returning grace” look like in your life?
4. What qualities describe your prayer life today? The prayer life of your congregation?
5. How might you deepen your prayer life, and help others to do the same? Can one person help another to pray “better”?
Reflection by Kate 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 rather humble ones. 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’).” 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 our text this week, where 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 husband’s 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? 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.
A world revolving 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.” 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. 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, 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 many of us 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 a “model of authentic prayer.” 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.
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. 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.” (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” (Peterson provides a beautiful introduction to I/II Samuel in 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 you fit into the story of God?
Bringing God with us when we come to 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.”
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.” 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 us of an uncomfortable truth, that the amazing things that happen “in holy places” happen because of God, not because of anything we do. 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 the recent death of my mother, my sister and I were sorting through our parents’ “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 (like Hannah) sees God as someone who listens to, and cares about, people like her. 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.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
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.
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.'”
John Bunyan, 17th century
“In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
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.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
“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.”
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