Sermon given at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas on November 18th, 2018.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.”
For as foreign a story as our Old Testament reading feels at first glance – a family with two wives, and yearly visits to the Temple to sacrifice animals that then become a sacred meal – for as foreign as all of this can feel, there is something achingly familiar in the story of this woman who wants, more than anything, to have a child.
Year after year, Hannah, and her husband Elkanah, and his other wife, Penninah, and her many children, go to the Temple to make sacrifices. Going to the Temple as a family was a time carved out to be particularly close to God, and a time that was marked by a special meal – not so unlike our own Thanksgiving holiday. And every year, as the family made the trek Penninah would mercilessly mock Hannah for her lack of children – not so unlike family dynamics at the dinner table during Thanksgiving.
Hannah is a woman in a patriarchal world wherein her worth is largely determined by her ability to have children and, specifically, to have a son. But even today, though we pride ourselves on being a little more balanced in gender empowerment, so much of how we conceive of women’s worth is through mothering- if we can be mothers, if we want to be mothers, how good as parenting we are.
And yet, for all these societal pressures and expectations, there is a real, ardent grief in wanting a child and being unable to have one.
For years, Hannah and her husband have been trying to conceive. And Elkanah, her husband, loves Hannah and assures her that her worth to him is not wrapped up in having a child – am I not more to you than ten sons? he pleads.
But what Hannah is experiencing is something her husband will never fully understand. And as deeply as he loves her, no one person can fulfill all the needs and dreams of another – even in marriage.
So Hannah’s grief grows, year after year, until she entirely loses her appetite.
Until one year, when our story picks up, Hannah has had enough. The family has eaten. Hannah has not, but she has remained, dutifully, through the meal, and then she arises.
She arises to go to the Temple of the Lord, alone. She goes to the house of God to make her plea, to promise if she is given a child she won’t even keep him, she will give him right back to God as a nazirite – a special kind of priest -in the Temple.
Hannah is praying silently; one translation says, “Hannah was praying with her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent.”*
Not only has Hannah has lost her appetite, she has lost her voice. All that is left are the words in her heart.
I wonder if you have ever prayed like Hannah. Perhaps it has been your own journey with fertility grief, with miscarriages, with loss. Maybe it has been loss in your family – or maybe it has been feeling profoundly lonely while surrounded by family. I wonder if you have ever felt so worthless that even whispering it out loud felt like it would confirm your deepest fears.
I wonder if you have prayed with your heart when your words were gone.
And while Hannah is praying a prayer beyond words, we are told the priest Eli is watching from the door.
Pay attention – Eli is watching from the doorway, the entrance to the Temple – the Temple, the place where God is especially close. Eli is a priest, but here, he is also a gatekeeper. A decider of who is worthy to pray in this bosom of God.
And Eli sees that Hannah’s lips are moving but no sound is coming out, and Eli thinks she is drunk and therefore, disrespecting the house of God.
“How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” he says, “Put away your wine!”
And Hannah – a woman whose grief has taken her sense of worth, her appetite, and her voice – Hannah, who has been carrying a weight of shame – shame about her body, shame about her life – long-silent-suffering Hannah responds.
“But Hannah answered, “No, my lord! I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have beenpouring out my soulbefore 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.”
Hannah came to the temple to plead with God for a son, and what she finds instead is her voice.
Hannah turns to Eli – a man whose power far outstrips her own, and she tells him that she deserves to have a place of sanctuary in the Temple so God can hear her heart – because somewhere, somehow as she was pouring her heart out to God she remembered: God made her. And it is in God that her worth lies.
Hannah is an audacious woman.** She teach us that sometimes, you have to take a risk to remember you are beloved by God.
Because God loves Hannah. Full stop. God loves this jealous, barren woman who gets a little sassy with the priest. In fact, Hannah is teaching Eli that God’s home, the Temple, is a home for prayers that are a little unruly, prayers that don’t always come from prayer-books or from clean piety but prayers that come pouring out from the depths of our hearts.
And Eli has a choice: as the gatekeeper, he could have scoffed at Hannah’s words. But when he was confronted with Hannah’s audacious declaration he prays that God would grant her what she asked.
And so Hannah goes home. She eats, and she is no longer sad.
She, who had lost her appetite, and her voice, and her sense of self-worth, finds her joy again.
She is not pregnant when she goes home and eats and drinks – the text is very clear that it is only after the family has gone back home that Hannah conceives. So as incandescently joyful as we know Hannah will be when she gives birth to that long-awaited son, we sell her story short if we think her “happy ending” is a child.
Not because her child is not a great joy – he is! – but because we see her audacious joy even in the song she sings as she fulfills her promise to God and brings her baby back to that priest Eli in the Temple.
“God raises up the poor from the dust!” she sings. “God lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor!”
Hannah’s song about knowing God is with the poor, the dispossessed, the lonely, the infertile women, the forgotten women, the lonely women. Sometimes, God answers our prayers in ways we want and expect. But more often than not, I think, God’s response to our prayers is a nudge to remember no markers of this world, no status signifiers or even other people are what will answer our pleas for worth and meaning.
God calls us to be audacious. God calls us to take holy risks, to declare the most dangerous thing of all: I am worthy of love not because of what I look like, or how much money I make, or what my family thinks of me, or my past – I am worthy because God loves me.
And because God loves you, you are called to break down barriers – we are called to have the humility of Eli when we are confronted with our assumptions of who we let in and who we keep out. We are called to love a God who brings down power and lifts up the lowly, the hurting, the poor, the barren, we are called the see the world as God does, and step into that upside-down logic and love fiercely.
You are beloved by God, no matter what. And God has made you to be a little audacious. Amen.
*Common English Bible translation.
**For more about the faithfulness of audacious women, see: Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.