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Hannah’s Gift

November 19, 2012

“Hannah’s Gift” 1 Samuel 1:1-28 and 2:1-10 © 11.18.12 Ordinary 33B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There are a great many memorable lines in the classic movie Casablanca. “Round up the usual suspects.” “Play it again, Sam.” “We’ll always have Paris.” And this one: “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

And generally, I suppose, Rick was right. The world goes on, and the troubles, foibles, and even accomplishments of ordinary people hardly get noticed. But when it comes to the way God works, it seems that “little people” are the preferred instruments of his will in a confused and broken world.

Take the story of Hannah, Peninnah, and Elkanah, for instance. They certainly lived in a “crazy” world, to use Rick’s term. To their southwest, the great Egyptian empire that had in some way controlled Palestine for over 400 years was preoccupied with internal financial troubles and a failure of leadership. Add to that the invasion by people from the Mediterranean that were settling on the northeastern coast. To the east in Mesopotamia, the former superpower nations there weren’t faring much better.

That didn’t mean there was nothing going on politically to keep the people of Palestine awake at night. Squabbling factions and tribes tried to assert their power. The Hebrews, having been invaders themselves back in the day, had still not conquered the Canaanites and their heavily fortified city-states.

But the Canaanites weren’t the biggest headache. The same sea peoples who had invaded Egypt were claiming land along the coast, and ruled the area from a cluster of five cities. The Bible calls these people “Philistines.” They had a centralized government with a king, iron weapons wielded by a strong army, and were technologically advanced.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, were relatively disorganized. They had no king at the time our story opens. When the Philistines or some other threat arose, a charismatic leader called a “judge” would bring the tribes together and form militias to go out and fight. When the battles were over, the Hebrews would return to their homes and their respective ways of life and governance. There was no united front except when they had to get together out of necessity.

The same lack of a common vision affected the Hebrews morally and ethically as well. The book of Judges reports how brutal life was, as each person did what he or she thought was right. When left to their own devices, it’s amazing what people will come up with and believe to be acceptable. The barbarity and violence of the latter chapters of Judges, especially against women, is astounding and sickening.

So this was a time of moral and political chaos. But in Elkanah’s household, anguish over the future and longing for a different outcome overshadowed whatever concern these three little people felt about the craziness of their world.

To understand what their crisis was about, the first thing to be clear on is that women in that day were valued only insofar as they produced babies, preferably sons. And since people believed that everything that happened was done by God, if a woman didn’t have children, it must be because God kept her from it. Nevertheless, she was also blamed for being “barren,” and her husband could divorce her for not giving him an heir. And such divorces certainly happened.

So year after year, Hannah lived with this burden, which was emotional, psychological, and theological. Fortunately, despite being clueless about how to cheer up his wife, Elkanah was a good man who loved her and would not send her away, despite not having a son to carry on the venerable family line. By the way, the notice that he loved her is remarkable, since in that day, marriages were arranged, and people didn’t marry for love.

If a man’s wife didn’t have children, there were alternatives in the ancient world for producing an heir. He could go the surrogate route, and have children by the wife’s handmaid without marrying her. Those children would be considered the wife’s offspring. This is what Abraham and Sarah did. But Elkanah actually married a second woman, so that the children she had were hers and not Hannah’s. Her firstborn son was Elkanah’s heir.

Peninnah, the second wife, was president and CEO of the mean girls’ club when it came to Hannah. Year after year, she taunted her about not having babies. I suspect the bullying arose from Peninnah’s pain. She gave Elkanah, over and over, what he wanted, but still she was not loved like Hannah. And Peninnah’s oldest son, the heir, was entitled to a double portion of the food at the feast. But he was cheated out of it again and again by Elkanah’s effort to show Hannah his love. Hannah got the double amount, but then wouldn’t eat it.

Finally, there is Eli the priest. Sensitive to his parishioners’ pain he wasn’t. And he was completely floored when someone acted outside the box. Hannah was going to Yahweh directly, a big no-no. And usually people prayed out loud. Hannah was praying silently, but her lips were moving. Eli couldn’t tell legitimate prayer from the mumbling of a drunk. So he berates the poor woman, who fortunately stands up for herself.

There, then, in broad strokes are the elements of that culture and the situation we need to understand to see what the crisis was, why Hannah was in such distress. Let’s take a look now at what the text might mean for us today.

I’ve called this sermon “Hannah’s Gift,” and by that I have in mind what she was given by God and what she gave back to God. But I’m thinking primarily of her gift to us, her lessons.

So what is her gift? Let me suggest that it is a reminder of three virtues that, when practiced, can help us live better and more fruitful lives.

First, Hannah saw herself as God saw her. It took awhile, but Hannah finally threw off the cultural definitions, the insults, the feelings of worthlessness. There comes a time when the best of people, patient saints, have simply had enough; the vexation and the bitterness and hurt ironically become the prod that’s needed finally for them to do something.

D.H. Lawrence once made a comment about snakes sloughing off their skins. He observed: “Sometimes snakes can’t slough. They can’t burst their old skin. Then they go sick and die inside the old skin, and nobody ever sees the new pattern. It needs a real desperate recklessness to burst your old skin at last. You simply don’t care what happens to you, if you rip yourself in two, so long as you do get out” (quoted in The Sun, July 2005: 48).

That bold assertion of newness, that sloughing off of her old identity, led Hannah to take charge of her own future. She claimed the blessing of God for herself. She made a vow concerning the child she wanted, without asking her husband. She went to the shrine and prayed without the assistance of a priest. And when her son was born, she named him. That was a task and privilege usually reserved for the father.

Hannah’s achievement is all the more amazing when we consider the deep despair and sense of self-loathing she experienced. She had to overcome a feeling of worthlessness. “Worthless” in that day meant sinful, corrupt, and idolatrous as well as what we think of: unprofitable, without value.

We probably cannot descend quite so far into the abyss as Hannah did. But I have felt worthless; I’ve been humiliated. I have been regarded and treated that way more than once by those in authority over me. And so have you, I suspect, at some point in your life. How do we say it in the South? “No account, good for nothing bum.” “Sorriest excuse for a (fill in the blank here) I’ve ever seen.”

We can believe what people say about us; we can wallow in the self-loathing. We can let the preacher or our parents or our spouse or the culture define who we are or what we should be and tell us how we will never measure up. We can rehearse over and over the big and little and in-between things we’ve done wrong and live our lives full of regret and bitterness. We can believe that religion is about feeling worthless. “We are but worthless servants…” as the saying from Scripture goes.

And there is a place for that kind of humility. But God by grace also names us his own, delights in our company, entrusts us with his mission. Would he do that with people he couldn’t or didn’t trust or love or consider fit?

So we can make a choice to believe what God says about us: that we are beloved; worthy; called and claimed in baptism; heirs of Christ; gifted in some way that maybe we haven’t discovered yet, but we will. And we can pour out our hearts to God and know he hears and ask him to help us become by grace what he says we already are, to enable us to produce the fruit in our lives that will give us that sense of worth and value that we long for.

But if Hannah and her story teach us to claim who we are, so does she also remind us of the power of hope. Elkanah was Samuel’s father, but in a real sense he was sired by hope. Hannah believed there was a future for her, and so there was. Her demeanor, her approach to life, her energy level, her relationship with her husband—everything changed because she believed there was a better day ahead, that she was being given the gift she prayed for. Incompetent and insensitive as he was, the priest Eli did something right. He promised her that God would help her. And because she believed that, Hannah would have been different, even if the promise had not come true.

Emily Dickinson (1861) famously said “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—that perches in the soul—and sings the tune without the words—and never stops—at all—And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—and sore must be the storm—that could abash the little Bird that kept so many warm—I’ve heard it in the chillest land—and on the strangest Sea—Yet, never, in Extremity, it asked a crumb—of Me”. What I believe she means is that hope is a gift; it cannot be conjured, controlled, cajoled or captured; it must be received and welcomed. And hope is unconquerable, even strongest in hard times. It’s empowering, liberating, enlivening. When we hope, we look up and out, not down and in; we reach out in confidence, not draw back in shame and doubt; we find our voice, we dare, we become audacious in our ventures, we try something new. We become a new creation, set free to dare and to be.

So Hannah’s gift to us is a new perspective on our identity as well as an invitation to hope. But finally, she shows us what gratitude does.

Hannah was so grateful for her son, given by God, that she “lent him” back to God for his entire life. Yes, she kept him for a time; that which is precious to us is hard to let go. But Samuel was dedicated to God, and began his service in the holy place at Shiloh with Eli. Whether Hannah knew it or not, she was giving a gift to the whole nation, because it would be Samuel who brought Israel out of its chaos and began it on the road to becoming an empire under David. Samuel was a great prophet and leader, the last judge of an old era, the facilitator of a new. And by the way, Hannah was granted five more children after Samuel who would be right there with her, not merely during visits on holy days.

God needs nothing. But we need to give back. We show our active gratitude to the Giver of all by our faithful, adoring lives. In worship, yes. But worship issues in service to God’s creation: to the needy on the ash heap, as Hannah’s song puts it; in compassion for our neighbors whatever their status in life may be, since anyone can be broken and humbled and hungry of spirit, if not of body; in attention to the creation itself, as we seek to care for and preserve and protect it. Our thanksgiving is more than saying “thank you” now and again. As with the old movie title, we “pay it forward” in acts of mercy and grace to others. Or as the hymn writers have put it: “We render back the love thy mercy gave us…” (Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World,” 1954) and “I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be” (George Matheson, “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go,” 1882).

The irony of this story is that 1000 years later, God ends up lending a child to us. He is God’s gift to faithful women like Hannah, clueless but loving men like Elkanah, hateful and hurting women like Peninnah, incompetent clergy like Eli, and especially to those about whom Hannah and later Mary sang: the humble in the dust, the downtrodden and the distressed and the down-in-the-dumps, the beat down and the beat up. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Soon we will start our journey to the manger. As we go, Hannah’s gift will sustain us on the way.

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