Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Israel Begins with a Suffering Woman” Sermon, Year B, Proper 28, November 18, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: 1 Samuel 1

The way that God works, the way that God is present in the world, the way that God begins something... God begins in small, domestic, earthy, specific, human places. Noah, just a man with a family. Abram, a man with a barren wife and no children. Joseph, with the famous multi-colored cloak, son number 11 and hated and teased and put upon by his older brothers. Moses, a murderer in exile who meets God in a burning bush in the desert. Ruth, who we read about last week, a foreign woman, a Moabite, widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi who was herself also a widow, worked God’s process. And we are coming close on Christmas when we will remember Mary, a poor, unmarried, teenage girl that God chose. And Saul, who was on the road to persecute these new Christians, has an encounter.

God works in these domestic, earthy, specific places. Not a voice from the sky to millions, or rattling of mountains to get the attention of nations. God comes in the midst of peoples’ lives. And always when God shows up, it is to deliver a message that is some variation of “I am about to do a new thing, and when I say ‘I’, I really mean ‘you’. You are about to do a new thing for me. You are about to do my will. I have chosen you to do this.” Or, “I m going to work through you.”

Over and over and over again in the Biblical narrative, we see that the “respectable” people, the people of power, the people of wealth, the people of high station, the people at the top of their game, the people who are lauded by the community, God often has little use for them in God’s plan. Over and over and over again, in the Biblical narrative, God chooses the second and the third and the last class people to change the world. The people who are on the bottom, the people who are on the outside, the people who are the least, the people who don’t have all the accolades and stature in their community. God chooses so often the least. And you’d think that after 4,000 years we’d get that message. That we would have embraced it.

And so also with Hannah, that we read in the Samuel story. Hers is a small story. A very small story. But it begins an incredible epic. This is the start of something extraordinary. 1 Samuel is the first of six books we have in the Old Testament that are the narrative history of the country of Israel. We have other books about the Hebrew people as God is calling them and bringing them to be a people. But 1 Samuel is the beginning of six books that tell the history of Israel being formed, and then splitting into Israel and Judah, and eventually being conquered by the surrounding nations. And the whole narrative of the country of Israel begins with the story of a second wife who is barren. A second wife who deeply suffers because she has no children, and she’s in a culture in which women were valued on their fertility. That’s how Israel chose to remember and tell their story, to begin with this wife number 2 who is barren.

Hannah so wants a son, even though her husband Elkannah is very good with her, and very good about it. He says, “It doesn’t matter to me that you don’t have a son. I love you.” He even gives her a double portion because he cares for her so much. But Hannah is suffering because she wants a son. And the other wife, Peninnah, is harassing and teasing her and making her life miserable because she didn’t have a son. Women did not have a lot of power in that day and age. Not a whole lot of stature for women. But the woman who had a son had power over the one who does not, has some prestige over the one who does not. Hannah wants a son. She wants to feel valued. She wants a place. She wants dignity. She wants an end to the shame.

So she goes to the sacred place at Shiloh and she pours out her heart to God in all her grief and all her pain. “Please, God, just one son. That’s all I ask. Just one son. And if you provide me with one, I will dedicate him to you as a Nazarite.” That’s a holy man. That is an interesting bargain, to say to God “If you give me what I want, I will give it back to you.” There’s a stewardship message.

She prays this, and as she’s praying, the priest Eli sees her. He is watching her. She’s praying, but not saying anything that can be heard. Just her lips are moving. That is all that Eli knows about her, that her lips are moving but nothing is coming out. So he assumes that she is drunk. He goes to her and confronts her. But notice one thing here that he doesn’t do: he thinks that she’s drunk, and confronts her about that, but Eli has so much respect for the sacredness of that space that he does not ask her to leave. He doesn’t tell her to get out, even though he thinks she’s drunk. He still welcomes her.

That is good challenge to us, about how we treat our sacred spaces or what we think of as sacred. Do we put fences around what we think are sacred so as to keep the outsiders out, and keep them from defiling or making it impure. Or do we look at our sacred things and, realizing that their very sacredness demands that we tear down the fence and share them. That we allow others to have access to that which is sacred. To make it available to all. If it is sacred, if something is sacred, it ought absolutely to be shared. Not to be hidden or hoarded or protected, as though God needs us to defend it.

We here at Plymouth are an Open and Affirming Church, a congregation with an open table. We don’t keep people from the Communion table. Anyone who wants to eat is free to eat. Anyone who wants to come and worship is free to come in and worship. This is God’s house. We have said no fences to this place. God’s house. It is not our house, it is God’s house. Everyone is invited. Women can be in leadership, and women can even be clergy. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, transgendered brothers and sisters are included. The mentally ill, the mentally advanced. Rich and poor. The homeless and the home-abundant all welcome. Wherever you are on life’s totem pole, this place belongs to you. We have decided to take those fences away. It is sacred, and so it ought to be shared and ought to be open. And so Eli respects that sacred nature of the place that he is in, respects it so much, and perhaps respects the sacredness of this woman who is front of him, respects her sacredness so much that instead of booting her out he listens to her story. She forces the story on him. He doesn’t ask her for it. But once she starts telling it, he listens. He listens to her story and by listening, he finds compassion, and through that he ends up offering her a blessing.

Listening leads to blessing.

How much do we miss because we don’t listen? How much do we miss? Especially by not listening to women. There has been a lot of debate in the last few months, as there always is around an election, about who has the right to make health decisions for women. But it seems like often it is done without consulting the women themselves. What they want, what they would like. Many who insist that the primary purpose of women still is to bear children, as though that is all God wants of them. And how much do we miss by not including the voices of the poor in our conversations about the economy. Or not listening to the voices of children as we make social policy or education decisions.

If we value something, if we understand the sacredness, we will listen. And when we don’t listen, we take some of that sacredness away. Or at least, we are ignoring the sacred nature. Japanese chefs have a tradition of listening to the food to determine how it should be prepared. They believe the food will be at its best if the chef listens to it, and prepares it to its best advantage in terms of how it’s cut, what it is paired with, whether it is cooked in broth or on the grill, etc. And Eli the priest, maybe not a great listener, but he still listens. He listens. But even more importantly than Eli listening, is that God listens. God hears Hannah’s pleas in this prayer that she offers to God out of her suffering and out of her pain. God hears her lament and provides for her a son. And not just a son, but God provides for her Samuel, a very important son.

When we read out of Ruth last Sunday, we heard of Ruth the moabite woman and her mother-in-law Naomi, that these two women are the movers and shakers behind the creation of the line of David, who becomes Israel’s second king and the father of a dynasty, a long line that even goes to Jesus. And here in 1 Samuel we have the story of a woman, Hannah, who is the mover and shaker behind the creation of the kingdom that David will inherit. She gives birth to Samuel. Samuel is the one who becomes the prophet that guides these twelve tribes into a nation. Samuel is the one who helps them form a nation. Samuel is the one who anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. And a few years later it is Samuel that God calls out to go out to Bethlehem to find the next king, and Samuel anoints David, this young boy, the last brother of many who is small and powerless and a shepherd boy. Samuel is the one who anoints David to be the next king, the second king.

Out of Hannah’s suffering and her willingness to admit to it and to make it public, at least to make it public to God, comes the birth not just of a boy, but of an entire nation.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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