Sunday, November 18, 2018

Claiming the Blessing: Sermon for Proper 28B

Every autumn after the harvest was over, Elkanah’s family made its way to Shiloh to thank God for God’s bounty. And every year, it seemed to Hannah that her situation got worse, not better--- this terrible sense of dread and longing after another year is gone without any children, after her sister-wife has presented their shared husband with yet another child. Elkanah and his two wives go to Shiloh each year to celebrate the harvest—a time of thankfulness for fertile fields and abundant harvests. All that talk about abundance reminds Hannah of all that she lacks.

Poor Hannah. The first two people she interacts with absolutely fail to understand her. One of them should know better—her husband, Elkanah. Knowing full well the kind of society in which they live—one where a woman was valued first and foremost by her ability to do the one thing a man absolutely could not do, which is conceive and bear children—Elkanah dismisses Hannah’s very real pain, distress, and grief. Even if he meant well, his response to Hannah’s grief over her failure to have children is ham-handed at best, and arrogant and unfeeling at worst. He has spectacularly misread the scales of redemption and disaster that fill Hannah’s field of perception night and day.

When he asks, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he is spectacularly short-sighted. I am sure he is very dear to her. But if anything ever happens to Elkanah, his love for her during his life will do nothing to save her from being absolutely destitute, and we can already see that the other wife will waste no time tossing Hannah out into the streets, since through the children she has with Elkanah, Peninnah will inherit everything.

In her despair, Hannah goes alone into the shrine at Shiloh to pray, Shiloh, the ancient worship place where the Ark of the Covenant resided. The walls of her endurance are crumbling. She’s frustrated. She’s angry. She’s scared. And yet, she dares to dream of fulfillment. She dreams of an other trajectory for her life. And so she prays.

And there she encounters old Eli—who has led Israel as a political and religious leader, but whose sons’ corruption is taken as a sign that God’s favor is being withdrawn from the old man. He sits in a darkened corner, brooding. What will become of Israel? Their enemies, the Philistines, live right on top of them, and God’s voice has been withdrawn from Eli’s hearing. Eli then looks up, and sees the woman swaying, her lips moving. He’s seen this before after a family sacrifices and feasts—some people have too much wine, and then they make a spectacle of themselves. He feels his anger and frustration spill over into his reaction to this drunk woman shamelessly making a fool of herself.

Hannah was so intent on her prayer she was startled as the old man loomed up next to her and took her by the arm while berating her. The injustice of his charge of drunkenness on top of the bitter treatment she has received from her sister-wife as well as her husband’s insensitive comments nearly causes her to break down completely. Here’s another person who has failed to understand Hannah this day, and now it’s a stranger with stooped shoulders and an air of failure about him. Hannah knows failure when she sees it.

Maybe it was the catch in her throat that stopped the old man’s hurtful insults on her character. She defends herself with a quiet dignity, because, in her situation, dignity is all she has left. Dignity, and probably a foolish hope that somehow she will be granted a heart’s desire. Hannah’s candor stops old Eli short, and instead of continuing to berate her, he realizes his failure to care for this woman , and feels his own heartbeat hammering against his chest, in a rhythm that sounds like it is tapping out “ A fraud! You’re a fraud! You’ve exposed yourself as a fraud.”

So Eli adopts a posture of conciliation. Now that he is closer, there’s no smell of alcohol on the woman. And so he blesses her, with whatever blessing he has in him. And then, thank God, she leaves. And he promptly forgets about her.

But Hannah doesn’t forget. Hannah hears that old prophet’s promise, and she has faith and strength and hope enough to claim that blessing. Eli forgets about her. Until… until nearly four years later, a woman appears with her toddler son and, to Eli’s astonishment, places the boy into the old prophet’s care.

And yet, as Hannah leaves her young son behind, she doesn’t weep. Instead she sings out a prayer of victory and thanksgiving at God’s gift of a son to her, ending her shame. She gives the boy back to God because she knows he was God’s all along. And her song anticipates the role the boy Samuel will play in redeeming Israel from being a people on the margins of destruction. Hannah has gone from despair to certainty and gratitude, and that is enough. Hannah has been shown that God has heard her, and the sheer miracle of that moves her from poverty of spirit to exaltation and praise. 

Even more—her song shows that she has been given a glimpse of redemption and true shalom for all. Her son will become a great prophet himself, and he will be sent by God to anoint the first kings over Israel. Just like her, Israel will go from being a barren, despairing people to a priestly people, a people from whom a savior will rise—all through the power of a God who forms mountains and the foundations of the world but does not scorn a despairing woman’s cry

Hannah’s story reminds us that God has the power to transform lives in ways beyond our knowing, for God is utterly free to act as God wills—and God often acts through those who would otherwise be the least likely suspects—not the mighty, or the powerful, or the comfortable, but the humble, the defenseless, those who have experienced heartbreak and even loss, those who seemingly had nothing but hope and faith to power them through.

Yet hope and faith are blessings enough, and they form a song, harmony and melody combined, that never dies. Hannah’s song certainly endures. Generations later, Hannah’s song would be adapted and echoed in the mouth of a young woman who finds herself suddenly with her own impossible pregnancy. Hannah could have given up. But instead, she maintained a faith in God not just as someone to whom she could appeal, but someone who would never turn an unfeeling eye toward God’s beloved chosen people.

Hannah’s song declares a new set of values, where those who are humble are lifted up, and the exalted are humbled. Yet Hannah’s song, and the story of so many people like her throughout scriptures and throughout history, is one where we find ordinary people willing to open themselves to helping bring about God’s blessings in the world. The story of Hannah itself echoes with the stories of Sarah and Rachel before her. All these stories will themselves resound in our memory in a few weeks, when we hear the story of Elizabeth, and the story of Mary. Hannah eventually sings a great song of victory after the birth of her son, which will be very similar to another song of victory sung by a young woman named Mary in a few weeks’ time, who also will be brought to shouting out a song of victory, inspired by her own impending motherhood.

In a few weeks, Mary will also sing about the greatness of God and all God’s works in overturning the hierarchies of power, to bring restoration of God’s design for peace and justice. Hannah’s song is a joyful outburst of gratitude and thankfulness. She knows her life could have been otherwise. 

Hannah is not just given a son. She is given a vision of a new triumph of peace; structures of injustice and weapons of war have been shattered; the hungry are satisfied and at peace; the oppressed are lifted up and exalted, while the oppressors are humbled and crumbled.

In times of struggle, hopefulness itself is an act of rebellion and resistance. Those who have been empty, without hope, have been, and will be, filled. And that’s an important reminder for us all. Even in the midst of everyday struggles, there are blessings, too. How often do we assign bad motives to people we encounter, failing to listen to the story of their lives rather than filling in their narrative based on our assumptions, like Eli did? How often do we get impressed by the wrong things, instead of treasuring simple pleasures that together remind us of beauty or wonder?

Poet Jane Kenyon expressed that kind of mindfulness in her poem, “Otherwise:”
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Even in such small things as a ripe peach there is a blessing to be claimed.

We live in a time when many people believe that, like in our gospel passage, all the edifices of faith have been pulled down, until not one stone rests upon the other. But perhaps sometimes the walls have to come down to remind us that faith and hope should not and ultimately must not be contained, that they don’t reside in buildings or monuments.

What if, instead, we placed ourselves in the power of the untamed Spirit of God, and dared to claim the blessing of real love and fellowship that Jesus calls us to again and again when he modeled the life of discipleship, the life of living for God and for each other? What if we realized that, when our own walls come down, the light of Christ that burns within us becomes that much more visible in the darkness of these times?

In all we do and all we say, we can bear the image of redemption, forgiveness, and compassion into the world. Each day we are experience a scattering of gifts that may escape our notice if we are not mindful of them. May we open our hearts to claim the blessings of our lives, and help multiply those blessings in the world. And sing a mighty song of redemption and hope that might get overlooked, otherwise.


Preached at the 8:00 and 10:15 am services at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2: 1-10
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

Notes/ attributions:
1) Image: Wilhelm Wachtel, Hannah in Prayer.
2) Hannah, Eli, and Samuel.
3) Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), "Otherwise," from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, 1996

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