Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Samuel 1.9-20, 2.1-10
16 October 2016, NL3-6, H2-1 (God Provides)
After Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and divided up the land among the twelve tribes, they lived in the promised land for around 300 years, during which God would occasionally raise up judges to lead them through a crisis—judges such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. During this time, scripture tells us “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The fabric of the nation frayed as each man looked out only for himself, until by the end of the book of Judges, society had so decayed that people, especially women, were treated as disposable.
It is at the end of this 300 years that we meet Hannah and her husband Elkanah, and her rival wife Peninah. Hannah was barren, and she longed for a child more than anything else in the world. Peninah had many children, and used her status as a mother to bully Hannah. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, she could not be consoled. We pick up their story at the point when the family goes up to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, as they did each year. The reading from 1st Samuel chapters 1 and 2 can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
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 worshipped 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.’
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 is forlorn.
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 honour.
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 in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.’
Assumptions: we all make them, we all have them, and many of us chafe under them.
We all know what happens when we assume.
But it’s as if we can’t help ourselves, we do it anyway. It’s unconscious—we’ve just absorbed certain things, and we see them as if they are reality, never thinking to question them until something dramatic happens to tear the scales from our eyes and give us a little clearer vision.
Hannah was a woman about whom a lot of assumptions were made. Peninah, the other wife, and all the rest of society assumed Hannah was worthless, a barren woman who contributed nothing, not even fulfilling her most basic purpose. She was easy to look down on, because she was in fact beneath them. Her husband assumed she knew her own worth in his eyes. It’s likely that Hannah even assumed about herself that she didn’t matter, that something was wrong with her.
And then Eli, sitting on the Temple steps, watched her…a barren woman, talking to herself, crying. Perhaps she was what we used to derisively call “hysterical.” He assumed she was drunk. He assumed she was a sinner, a woman of no account, making a spectacle of herself, embarrassing herself and her family.
But Hannah shocked everyone—probably including herself—by standing up and challenging Eli’s assumptions. NO: She is not drunk. She is not a worthless woman. She is a person made in God’s image, whole and beloved. She matters.
Any number of things could happen at this point, when someone challenges our assumptions. This is the moment a lot of violence, especially domestic violence, happens—when one person asserts their worth, contradicting the one who assumed they were in control. So often we make assumptions about the people we see, or the people we hear about. Consciously or not, we have decided somewhere along the way that they matter less—because of their gender, or their skin color, or their weight, or their sexual orientation, or their religion, or their economic class. We would never put it like that, of course. We look back on those ancient times when women’s worth was measured by their ability to bear male children and we shake our heads, grateful that isn’t the scale anymore.
But if we’re honest, we have a scale. Some people are more worthy, more deserving, than others. Somewhere along the way, humans equated “having” with “deserving.” And when those who don’t have, and therefore don’t deserve, stand up and insist that they matter too, they are made in the image of God, they are beloved…we who live with a lot of advantages have a hard time with that. Perhaps we even fear that if they are loved and valued, then we won’t be anymore. So we lash out, with words or with guns. We put them back in their place, whether by wondering why they won’t just conform to our standards or by physically putting them where we think they belong—often in prison.
Thankfully for Hannah, when God provided her the courage to value herself and to challenge Eli’s assumptions, God also provided Eli the courage to hear her with an open mind and heart, and to drop his beliefs and treat her differently. Instead of chastising her further for her uppity response, or hitting her, or calling her husband to shame her in public, he gave her a blessing. He recognized there was more to this story than he originally perceived.
It is from this moment—not the moment she gets pregnant, or the moment she gives birth to a boy, or the moment she drops Samuel off at the Temple—this moment, when Hannah challenged the assumptions that had been made about her, that “her countenance was sad no longer.” The weight of other people’s projections and expectations was lifted, and she saw herself as she truly was. And not only that, but God provided her a witness, someone else who could see her as she really was, even if it took some fighting on her part to get there. Eli’s perception was changed as he allowed Hannah to be a person in her own right, not just a carrier of other people’s assumptions. And Hannah’s life was changed from the inside out when she knew herself both seen and valued.
It isn’t surprising that Hannah would burst into song—with a new understanding of herself, she sees God’s world more clearly. She sees that it is God who provides—from the foundations of the earth to the cares of the barren woman. And her whole song is about how God’s providence challenges the assumptions of the world—breaking the bows of the mighty, while strengthening the feeble, filling the hungry while the full seek nourishment, raising up the poor and the needy from the dust and seating them with princes. While the world is in the business of getting and keeping, and often does so by pushing some down, God is in the business of reversal.
This week there was a conversation in one of the narrative lectionary preaching groups about Hannah’s song, particularly the line “my mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.” Surely we don’t want to encourage people to gloat? After all, God calls us all to reconciliation and wholeness, not to celebrating at the expense of others. We talked about this for a long time, but ultimately I think this is another place where we are relying too heavily on our assumptions, and God may be providing us a new way of seeing.
Throughout her story, Hannah has been brutally honest about her distress and her need. She doesn’t mince words or pretend things are okay (but by the way, God, if you have a moment…) She has borne the abuse and scorn of society and even her own family, for years. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that she would then have a moment of triumph? It doesn’t last long—her song is about God and all the ways God works in the world to bring about justice. But for a moment, she gets to be angry at how she has been treated. She is allowed to feel that anger.
It’s that moment when we get uncomfortable. We don’t want people to be angry. And in some cases, if we were fully honest and allowed God to open our eyes like Eli’s, we don't even necessarily want people to credit God with the reversal. We want the credit for making change, creating space, helping the less fortunate. Acknowledging that it is God who provides—often through our abundance—means also acknowledging that those people matter to God just as much as we do. It means challenging our deep and sometimes subconscious assumptions that people of color are less capable, or people who are poor are lazy, or people who are Muslim are terrorists, or people with accents don’t belong here.
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it—the world, and those who live in it. Hannah acknowledges that God is, for lack of a better term, the “owner” of all things, and provides for us what we need. Sometimes what we need is a reality check, a glimpse of God’s kingdom truth. When we get it, God also provides us the courage to do something with that gift. Just as with every other gift God gives, it’s for a purpose. Hannah knew that the proper response to God’s providing was to give it back—she promised Samuel to God, to serve in the temple, and she took him there and left him to grow up to be the priest who changed the course of history. The same is true of less tangible gifts. God provides, and we are called to respond.
I hope that throughout this Harvest 2 season, as we consider the many different ways God provides, we will also consider what God calls us to do with what we are given. Whether that’s a gift of challenged assumptions, a gift of resources, a gift of talent or time—God’s purpose is the same: abundant life for all creation, to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. May we have the courage of Hannah and the openness of Eli, to participate in God’s great reversal until all know themselves beloved.