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From Lament to Praise
1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10

When I first read the scripture for today, I thought O MI GOD…what am I going to do with this? We’ve got a polygamous family, 2 wives squabbling…a woman who prays to God for a child instead of going to her local fertility specialist…And then when she gets the baby she gives it back to the temple, (now that makes sense doesn’t’ it???) to be raised by the priests????…. (memories of scandals ring in my ears from Mount Cashel to residential schools) … And then not only does she give up her child, she sings about it with joy, as if this is a really great thing!!!! Whew! This is going to be a hard one thought I.
But I know enough about reading scripture to know that you have to look beyond this initial literal look. Indeed it usually blocks the levels and layers of meaning in the story, and I can completely miss point.
So I know when I approach scripture, it is good to know the history, the context, the scholarly insight into the story.

So 2 seconds of history:

The books of 1 and 2 Samuel are part of larger work that traces the history of Israel from the conquest to the exile…But this is history with a difference. It’s shaped by the story-teller, who forms the motif for the story. And the aim of this story teller is to tell the story of the shift from rule by judges to the king…particularly as it leads to the Davidic kingship; and the shift from the tent of meeting in Shiloah to the founding of the temple by king David in Jerusalem…. Now that’s pretty boring isnt’ it? True, but not exactly soul-grabbing.

Let’s take the history deeper. Biblical history is never just about the facts. It’s about what God is doing in the lives of the people. In the dynamics of this story, we are at a major turning point of the history of the people. From these unlikely beginnings; from barrenness, from a woman’s lament, came Samuel who heard the word of God in his time, and who turned his world upside down…He overturned the hereditary priesthood of Eli…He anointed David the youngest dreamer child of a large family of boys. He became an advisor to kings, a respected leader through transition times. A man renowned for his wisdom and faithfulness.

This is yet another example of the bible’s constant message that from the smallest, the least, the barren, the hopeless, God births hope and future. God brings new life and transformation from tiny beginnings that seem insignificant. This is a key motif in the whole biblical story.

From the first verse of scripture, we meet One who brings life out of chaos..whose breath breaths over the nothingness, and creates life in all its fullness. And then we meet Noah…a crazy nobody ark builder that everyone mocks, who becomes the instrument through whom creation is restored after the devastating flood, Then there’s Joseph, another youngest dreamer son, sold into slavery by jealous brothers, who rises from slave to prime minister of Egypt and becomes the instrument of saving his family and their future in famine time. Fast forward several generations and we meet Moses, a child of slavery, clandestinely raised in Pharoah’s court , who becomes God’s instrument to free the people. Moses leads the exodus of slaves from Egypt taking them into wilderness as they search for a promised land And now from Hannah’s barrenness springs forth one who will be a world shaker, one who will turn the system upside down. And the list could go on and on. From smallness comes unexpected power. And of course one could be forgiven for looking forward in the story to recognize that this same motif is part of what forms the way the story of Jesus’ birth is told.

So this deeper reading we already gives us one important layer of meaning.. You never know when something small, unimportant can be used by God to make a new beginning, maybe even our lives.
But stories are powerful in and of themselves because of our innate human capacity to experience our own lives in them-even across cultures and generations. Let’s look at the reading as story, as metaphor, mining it for layers of meaning as would Jewish teachers who would do midrash on such a text…going off in all kinds of tangents, imagining themselves into the story, making another story about the story, within the story, around the story. Let’s play with the text that way, moving our lives and experience in an out of it.

It begins with Hannah, the barren wife of Elkanah. Some interesting family dynamics going on… Elkanah has a second wife Peninnah who is Mrs. fertility with a pile of kids, and she’s been lording it over Hannah, shaming her for not having a child. In those days a woman without a child was looked down on in the community, readily rejected by her husband…And that would mean she would be in utter poverty, undefended. Wanting a child, was not just about Hannah’s maternal instincts, but about her very survival, her self-respect, and then of course…she also wanted to get her Peninnah off her back.
Does this seem far away? When you are trying to have a child, families can still get on your back and say some of the most unkind, insensitive things. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my uncle Mick, after a few too many drinks celebrating news of his wife’s pregnancy, sitting around the kitchen table at a another uncle’s apartment. Mick began to mock and shame my other uncle because he and his wife couldn’t get pregnant. He knew they had been trying for many years. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life to sit and listen to this and feel as a young child totally powerless. I caught the eyes of the uncle being humiliated and his pain seared into my memory. I still see it in his eyes when I visit him in a nursing home.

Issues around pregnancy continue to affect our lives and the lives of those close to us. Societal pressures around pregnancy wanted or not, fear of pregnancy, difficulties with pregnancy and fertility, joy of new birth in the family, choice to end unwanted pregnancy, miscarriage, giving a child into adoption, these experiences connect deeply with our souls, and are life-changing.

As well most of us, men or women, can also connect in a more general way with the feeling of barrenness. Those times when it has felt as if nothing is very life-giving, as if we are in a wasteland, disconnected from hope. So one way or another Hannah is not too far from our experience.
And then there is the dynamic between Elkanah, the husband, and Hannah. Now give him credit. He notices she is upset despite the fact that he’s doing everything in his power to please her. He seems to really love Hannah. He sees her crying and not eating and he says “ Why are you so upset… You got me babe! Forget the tears. Am I not worth more than 10 sons to you?” OK women…what’s wrong with this picture?

He really hasn’t heard her pain has he? He’s saying “There there dear.” Does that work in your family??? It’s fine for him. He already IS a father. He can afford to have one wife to love and another to bear his children. ( And guys this is not a justification from the pulpit for you to have 2 wives or even a mistress OK?)

Hannah is heartbroken, driven to despair. She is driven to the only one who will God. In the sanctuary, with hollow sadness in her soul, she pours out her anguish, her anger and hurt, her abandonment, her dashed hopes…She laments; she bargains…If only I can bear a son, I will give him back to you she promises.

She sat with God in her deep need…. begging for healing for her life.
Hour on hour she sat….. lips moving in silent prayer in the sanctuary
Hour on hour she cried. Hour on hour she prayed…..

Have you ever been in that place? when there is an ache in the heart that stretches like a canyon, when your world is shaken and upside down, when what you hope for seems utterly impossible? You try to take out the old maps but the roads lead nowhere. In spiritual language it’s called the dark night of the soul.

Have you ever been able to pour out your soul in sacred conversation with God in those times? Letting all of the feelings pour out, the good the bad and the ugly. Lament is a powerful form of prayer. The psalms are full of it. But many of us are afraid to face that darkness afraid to be that naked and vulnerable with God. Lament is being real with God, warts and all, pouring out deep longing and need, anger, hurt, dashed hopes….

When we, like Hannah, face into this dark night of the soul, name it in sacred presence we just might find that this place is a fertile darkness, where a new thing is being born. And in the speaking, and in the hearing something happens.
When the healing time is ripe,
the soft voice of Tenderness,
the quiet breath of Life,
the witness of endurance,
the reminder of resilency,
the messenger of healing, comes.
And somewhere deep inside,
the wound we’ve worn for so long
hears the song and turns towards healing.

For Hannah in the night, the whisper of Love came to her, and something more than emptiness took up residence in her. There would be new life. God would birth through her a new beginning for her people.
But not before the priest Eli, this guy who is supposed to understand prayer, chastises Hannah for being drunk. “Sober up” he says. “Don’t put on a drunken show”….So much for pastoral care in the temple of Shiloh!!!!…..

Let’s hope we’d do a better job in our community when we meet those who come with stories of sadness, and pain. Let’s hope we do a better job of being there for one another, so that those of us who are in confusion and in the midst of dashed hopes and heartache, can be supported and understood by those of us who have been through the fire and survived and can share stories that rekindle the hope and courage to go on.

Typical of the lectionary, we skip over all the earthy part of the sex, the pregnancy and the birthing and nursing that lead to the second part of the reading. Next time we meet Hannah is 2 years later, and she has come to keep her promise. She has had a son whom she names Samuel, which means“ heard of God”.

I still have a lot of trouble with the notion of Hannah giving the child to the temple to keep her promise to God. It’s beyond the imagining of my cultural experience. I know in many ways, we all have to give our children to the world…to let them go, not when they are infants, thank God, but when they are adults, and that can be hard enough. And it makes me wonder what might change for us if we were to view our children as gifts to the larger community?

In the second part of the reading Hannah sings a song of gratitude to God for turning her fortunes around, for restoring her hope. The song Hannah sings is not a lullaby for the son she has entrusted to Eli. It is a victory song for the Holy One of Israel, who overturns conventional wisdom and dismantles earthly powers while uplifting the very ones this world overlooks and oppresses. Her song is a song of deep hope for the whole of Israel. Hannah’s son Samuel is a sign of the future God has in store. Her son goes on to be a kingmaker, a reformer of the priesthood, a powerful leader through a time of transition for the nation.
Hannah’s song is echoed in the Magnificat of Mary before Jesus birth. The notes these women sing harmonize in the chord of God’s new order that lifts up the lowly and brings low the haughty.

So I began to think about where that connected with my life. Had I ever experienced the sentiment of Hannah’s song? This overwhelming outpouring of praise and gratitude for life turned upside down. What came to mind were the faces and stories of the people remembering the Berlin wall coming down 20 years ago this past week. You saw them on television..What seemed impossible had happened….Hallelujiah!… I remember too the kind of hope and wonder we witnessed the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, and apartheid ended, and the world turned round…What was impossible had happened Hallelujiah! It was the experience of many when Barak Obama was elected. What seemed impossible had happened. Hope could breathe again. Hallelujiah! Or on a more personal level, it was the joy I experienced at the birth of my children and grandchildren; or the hope I witnessed when a friend celebrated 10 years free of cancer! Hallelujah! or the gratitude another friend shared at celebrating 25 years free of alcohol addiction Hallelujiah! The world has been turned upside down. Thanks be to God.

Maybe the God of Hannah’s song of high revolt continues to turn the world on its ear and bring impossible beginnings!! Let’s hope so.

So the moral of this story? Don’t judge a scripture by its first literal reading.

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