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August 4, 2015, 10:18 AM

Shemu'el (God Hears)


1 Samuel 2:1-10 (and all of 1 Samuel 1) 
Hannah prayed:
I’m bursting with God-news!
    I’m walking on air.
I’m laughing at my rivals.
    I’m dancing my salvation.
2-5 Nothing and no one is holy like God,
    no rock mountain like our God.
Don’t dare talk pretentiously—
    not a word of boasting, ever!
For God knows what’s going on.
    God takes the measure of everything that happens.
The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces,
    while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts,
    while the hungry are getting second helpings.
The barren woman has a houseful of children,
    while the mother of many is bereft.
6-10 God brings death and God brings life,
    brings down to the grave and raises up.
God brings poverty and God brings wealth;
    God lowers, God also lifts up.
God puts poor people on their feet again;
    God rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope,
Restoring dignity and respect to their lives—
    a place in the sun!
For the very structures of earth are God’s;
    God has laid out God’s operations on a firm foundation.
God protectively cares for God’s faithful friends, step by step,
    but leaves the wicked to stumble in the dark.
    No one makes it in this life by sheer muscle!
God’s enemies will be blasted out of the sky,
    crashed in a heap and burned.
God will set things right all over the earth,
    give strength to God’s king,
    set God’s anointed on top of the world!
 
“Shemu’el (God Hears)”
I have been really enjoying our summer sermon series and spending time with biblical figures I first learned about in Sunday School as a child. It has been such a joy to meet them again and hear their stories with fresh ears, from different perspectives: Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses. I thoroughly enjoyed diving into Joshua and Ruth, and digging deeper into their stories than I ever have before. So, it was with eagerness that I prepared to encounter Hannah, a figure often overlooked in the midst of the saga of Samuel, King Saul, and King David. But, it didn’t go so well.
 
Don’t get me wrong, there were good commentaries and articles about Hannah’s story that were informational and thought provoking. However, I also ran into a lot of struggling theologians. Some simply retold me the story. A few tried to embellish the details to make the story more 21st century friendly, which was not helpful. And then there was this one that brought me up short. I read the article, re-read it, and then turned to the inside cover of the commentary to see when it was written—2009. I looked at the author, a rather well known theologian that I have read other materials from at different times and enjoyed. But here is what he said of Hannah… “The truthful pastor must admit that Hannah, as a congregant, would drive them crazy. She is needy, dramatic, challenging, and insistent.”
 
It is very troubling to see Hannah characterized this way. It diminishes her story, belittles her plight, and makes light of her situation. Just look at all the recurring themes within Hannah’s story that connect her to the stories of other remarkable women in scripture. As we learn of Hannah’s barrenness we are reminded of Sarah. When Hannah lifts her voice in song we hear Miriam singing on the shores of the Reed Sea, and leading other women in dance and worship. As Hannah addresses God directly she mirrors Hagar naming God in the wilderness. When she displays her insistence we hear Ruth speaking to Naomi. As she stands up for herself with courage we hear echoes of Esther. Hannah’s story foreshadows the barren Elizabeth who will give birth to John the Baptist, and Hannah’s song echoes underneath Mary’s Magnificat.
 
These stories of women pop up in the midst of a decidedly patriarchal culture for a reason: because women were tremendously vulnerable with no rights, finding security and protection only from the men in their lives; because women were systematically marginalized and oppressed with no voice, literally sold into marriage; because women were literally the ‘least of these’ with valued assigned based on their ability to produce male heirs. Every time God moved through women, God proclaimed God’s self as the One who loves the marginalized—the widow and the orphan. Every time God moved through women God shone divine light on the injustice in their lives. Every time God moved through women God highlighted their actions and their voices that despite all that was stacked against them they acted, and spoke. They believed and trusted. They embraced hope.
 
Hannah is in a horribly vulnerable place. Her life is absolutely dependent on Elkannah, her husband, with no safety net. If he were to die, she would be left with nothing. Elkannah’s sons by Penninah would inherit everything, and Penninah’s torment of Hannah leaves little doubt whether Hannah could depend on mercy from her and her children. Men were usually quite a bit older than their wives. If and when Elkannah dies, Hannah will be completely bereft.  She is not being needy or dramatic, and she has every right to be insistent. Look at how alone Hannah is in this story. If she doesn’t speak up for herself, who will? Her co-wife, Penninah, is against her. Elkannah’s only response to Hannah’s weeping and sadness is, “Why are you sad? Aren’t I better than 10 sons?” The priest, Eli, is accusatory and lost. If we read further into 1 Samuel we see Eli is as barren as Hannah. No, Hannah must pray for herself, plead for herself, groan for herself.
 
Hannah’s story is critically important because it is repeated too many times across our world today. Thousands of Hannahs plead for security, stability, safety, protection, shelter…hope…life. Too many times their cries and demands are dismissed, diminished, and belittled by those who have never had to stand in their shoes. “They need to get a job…or a better job.” “Move to a safer, better place…just not here.” “Be patient.” “Perhaps you should just be satisfied with less.” “It can’t be as bad as all that.” “Well, we need to take care of our own first.” And if their cries become louder and more insistent, they are accused of being needy and demanding and rude.
 
But God hears! Hannah assures us of that as she names her son Samuel—Shemu’el—God hears. God hears…not a needy, dramatic, challenging, insistent, difficult ministerial burden. God hears a frightened, desperate, despairing yet hopeful child of God. God hears…and in these first chapters of the first book of Samuel, God pleads for us to do the same.
 
God asks us to hear the call for volunteers; listeners at Caring Connections, hands to provide nourishment and empowerment at our hot meal ministries, hearts to sort donations at Family Services. God pleads for us to hear the need for resources; back-to-school supplies for struggling families, nonperishable food items for area food pantries, money and supplies for disaster relief. God urges us to hear the demand for advocates to speak to our government officials and corporate executives on behalf of the last and the least. God implores us to hear the yearning of the marginalized for someone to please stop, and see them where they are, to hear their story, and to love them enough to walk with them into a new future.
 
If we open our ears to hear and our hearts to respond, then together we can join our voice with Hannah’s in the joyful song of the Beloved Community, the Commonwealth of God, the Kingdom…
            I’m bursting with God-news!
            I’m walking on air!
            I’m laughing at those who stand against me!
            I’m dancing my salvation!
            Nothing and No one is holy like God!
            No rock mountain like our God!
Thanks be to God! Amen!

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