Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,
for he who has promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23
Have you ever read a Bible passage that spoke so directly to you that it went straight to your heart like an arrow? That’s what happened to me 20 years ago when I first read this morning’s Old Testament story of Hannah and the birth of Samuel – or, as today’s Collect puts it, when I first began to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this section of Scripture. I was 35 years old, newly married, and childless. I badly wanted a child, but like a good number of women I was struggling with infertility. During the long bout of medical treatments, I read with great interest the biblical stories of barren women who through the grace of God conceived and bore children late in life – Sarah, for instance, and Rebekah, Rachel, and Elizabeth. But it was the story of Hannah that most captured my imagination.
Her story may not be familiar to you, since today’s reading is a new passage that we have been given because of our transition to the Revised Common Lectionary, so let’s take a moment to review it. The first character we meet is Elkanah, who goes every year to worship in Shiloh, the city where the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle are kept. Elkanah has two wives. With one wife, Penninah, he has children, but the other wife, Hannah, is infertile. Elkanah feels a special love for Hannah – he brings her a double portion of the sacrifice. But the other wife, Penninah, is making Hannah’s life miserable, provoking and irritating her because she can’t bear a child, so that Hannah weeps and will not eat. Elkanah tries to encourage Hannah, asking “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat?… Am I not more to you than ten sons?” [1 Samuel 1:8].
But this doesn’t console her, and one day, “after they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh” [1 Samuel 1:9], Hannah goes to the temple and brings her suffering to God. Weeping bitterly, she asks God for help and makes a vow: if God will give her a son, she will dedicate him to God’s service as a nazirite. (Scholars don’t seem to know exactly what a nazirite is, except, as the story tells us, they don’t drink wine and don’t cut their hair.)
The priest, Eli, can see her distress, for she is weeping and moving her lips, but because she is praying in silence he misunderstands what is going on and accuses her of being drunk. Hannah stands up for herself and tells him that she has been “pouring out [her] soul before the LORD” [1 Samuel 1:15], and Eli tells her to go in peace, assuring her that God will grant her request.
And so Hannah leaves the temple happy. She believes him. She believes that God will be faithful to her. And sure enough, after Hannah and her husband worship one last time and return home, “the LORD remembered her” [1 Samuel 1:19], and before long she does conceive and bear a son, whom she names Samuel.
When God grants you your heart’s desire, what can you do but sing? And that’s what Hannah does, praising God in the Song of Hannah that we used this morning in place of a psalm: ‘My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2: 1a, 2). She praises the God of justice who has the power to cast down and raise up, the power to break the bows of the mighty and give strength to the feeble. If the Song of Hannah sounds familiar, that is because it became the template for the Song of Mary, the Magnificat that Mary sings when she is pregnant with Jesus and praises God’s power to overthrow every expectation, to raise up the lowly and bring new life into the world [Luke 146-55; BCP pp. 91-92].
When I read Hannah’s story 20 years ago, I identified very literally with Hannah’s frustrated longing for a child. I felt that I was sharing in her suffering and sorrow. Like her, I didn’t feel that anyone, not even my beloved husband, could console me, and that the place to bring my grief was ultimately to God. Like Hannah, I too made a vow: if God gave me a child, I would entrust that child to God – not that the child would be a nazirite, for I had no idea what a nazirite was – but in the sense that I would try not to cling to the child. My child’s soul would belong not to me, but to God; the child would be a child of God, even more than he or she would be my own.
You can see why – after several years of infertility work came to nothing, after my husband and I decided to give up any further medical treatment and to relinquish our hope for a biological child – when I suddenly and almost miraculously conceived and bore a child, a son, we decided to name him Samuel.
Twenty years later I come back to this story with a deep sense of gratefulness for how it carried me through a dark time and pointed me toward hope. From Hannah I learned something about facing my pain and frustration, and bringing everything to God. I learned something about persistence and passion, and about entrusting the outcome to God. I learned about God’s power to bring forth life, though obviously it may not come in the way that we expect. A Christian friend of mine who went through her own struggle with infertility recently decided to adopt a girl from China, and in gratitude for God’s power to bring new life, she named her daughter Hannah.
Now you may be sitting here thinking, “Well, fine, but this doesn’t relate to me since I have no interest in bearing or raising a child.” But isn’t it true that in whatever stage of life we are, we sense deep within us a longing to bring forth life? Psychologist Erik Erikson spoke of a middle-aged person’s drive toward generativity – the desire to encourage and support the younger generation and to pass on what we have learned – just as he spoke of an elderly person’s drive toward wisdom – the desire to look deeply into life, to make peace with one’s place in the big scheme of things.
Artists know the longing to let their creative powers be expressed. A teacher standing in front of a classroom, wondering how to engage her students; a parent considering what to say to a cantankerous child; a doctor trying to diagnose and treat an illness; a consultant trying to untangle the dynamics of a dysfunctional workplace — each one knows the longing to say or do whatever will move the situation forward and create fresh possibilities so that new life can be born.
We are each like Hannah, standing before God and asking to be a channel for life, a vehicle through which God can tend and bless the world. And we don’t bring just our personal longings — we also bring to God our longing for a renewal of the earth, a renewal of our human societies. We ask for life to flow through us, so that through our own hands and words and deeds, new life can come into the world.
For so many people these are such uncertain and anxious times. Melting ice caps. Erratic weather. The prospect of peak oil and the eventual collapse of a petroleum-based economy. The news that we have exceeded our planet’s carrying capacity, its ability to replenish the resources that are being used up. No wonder so many of us look to the future with some degree of dread. Are we heading toward catastrophic climate change and social upheaval?
We want to turn things around. We want to bring into being something new. We want to stand up for life, to protect life, to bring new life to birth. So, like Hannah, we stand before God in our helplessness and need, asking God to come with great power and to make a way where there is no way, to bring new life when maybe all we can see just now is only frustration or despair.
Hannah didn’t know it, but when she finally brought her personal pain to God, she opened the path for God to change her country’s history. “The story of the birth of Samuel comes at a key turning point in the history of Israel.” (1) Samuel would be the last of the so-called “judges” – inspired leaders of Israel – and would move the nation out of a period of anarchy and chaos [cf. Judges 21:25] into a monarchy. It was Samuel who anointed the first kings, Saul and then David. Without Hannah’s persistence and passion, “there would have been no Samuel, and some other way would have had to be found to establish Israel and the monarchy.” (2)
We’re not looking for any monarchy, but many of us are hungering for new ways to organize communities, new ways to shape our economy so that is based on sustainable principles. Hannah’s story – and our Gospel passage, too – challenge us to live into these violent and uncertain times as if they are the inevitable pangs that accompany a birth. They challenge us to live with the courage and endurance and patience and even the excitement that attend any birth. That’s what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel reading from Mark: “Do not be alarmed,” he tells us, when we “hear of wars and rumors of wars,” when nations rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there are earthquakes and famines. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” [Mark 13: 7, 8].
God’s Spirit, God’s energy, is calling us to new life, and isn’t it true that even now something new is being born? We see small signs of a new economic order and of people relating to each other in new ways. We see people supporting small, locally owned businesses and participating in community-supported agriculture. We see people trying to live more simply, to waste less and to consume only what they need. Even now, 6 weeks before Christmas, some people have decided to opt out of buying a bunch of stuff that will only end up in the landfill. Right here at Grace Church we see small groups of people resisting the loneliness and alienation that seem to be part of this post-industrial society and starting up “pastorates,” gathering on occasional evenings in each other’s homes to pray and talk and build real friendships.
Signs like these are very small, but they are signs that something new is being born. Of course we can always throw up our hands, say it’s too late to stop climate change – that we’re going to have to settle for a future of tribalism and fear, of extreme weather events and millions of refugees.
But like Hannah, we turn to God in longing and in hope. We want to bring new life into the world. We want to create a world that is socially just and environmentally sound. We want to pass on to our children the life that is here. We want to be able to say to future generations: “Look! I give you polar bears. I give you coral reefs. I give you an intact ice sheet that is the size of a continent. I give you seasons. I give you moderate weather.” (3)
Like Hannah we want to say, ‘My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2: 1a, 2)
(1) Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B, Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, p. 467.
(2) Ibid, p. 469.
(3) Eban Goodstein of Green House Network used these images in October, 2006 in a talk at UMass Amherst about his new initiative, Focus the Nation.