Text: I Samuel 1:4-20
Hannah’s story has a bit of everything in it – politics, drinking, and sex. That’s right, the three things we are told not to talk about in church. And it’s right there – in the Bible. Maybe you didn’t hear it because you were supposed to be listening to a story from the Bible – the Holy Book. Sometimes I wonder if we have so sterilized religion and scripture that we can’t and don’t hear just how openly and honestly it speaks to all aspects of our humanity. But it’s all there – in Hannah’s story.
Hannah’s story starts with politics – family politics and cultural politics. From the opening verses of the first chapter of I Samuel, we are informed that Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, is from a distinguished family line; and that he is a man of some means because he has two wives. We know nothing about these wives, however, except for their names and their respective reproductive statuses. Peninah has children; Hannah does not. From the brief sketch, we can presume a number of things: First, since barrenness (and it was always assumed that the problem was with the woman) was considered a source of disgrace in the ancient world, Hannah lived under a cloud of shame. Those around her probably wondered what she had done to deserve such a punishment from God. For certain, this seems to be the case with her co-wife Peninah, who, the story tells us, “to make her miserable, would taunt her that God had closed her womb.”
Second, since children, particularly sons, represented the future – life beyond the present generation – in a very real and concrete way for the Hebrew people, we can assume that Hannah as a barren woman was seen by her society as someone who had no future. For ancient Israelites, the concepts of life after death and heaven were nebulous, perhaps even non-existent. Therefore, during the time in which the Hebrew Bible was written and when Hannah lived, Israelites imagined “life after death” as unfolding in the lives of their descendants. With this in mind, Elkanah’s future was assured through Peninah’s sons. Hannah’s was not.
Finally, even though the text tells us that Hannah was Elkanah’s favorite and that he would give her a double-portion at the sacrifice at Shiloh, Hannah’s immediate future wasn’t secure either. If Elkanah died suddenly, his sons through Peninah would inherite everything, leaving Hannah dependent upon their goodwill or lack of it. She knew that without a child, and more specifically a son, she could end up on the street. It was the truth of family and cultural politics of Hannah’s day.
And what about the boozing? We know better of Hannah, but Eli didn’t seem to. Deeply troubled and distraught she goes to the temple to pray. There, she “pours out her soul” to God. There at the temple, the holy place, she thought she was free to let all her frustration out, all her anger, all her bottled-up emotion. She groaned out her distress and bitterness in unintelligible wails. And when she finally emptied herself of all her pain, she stood trembling in silence, tears rolling down her face. Her mouth moved, her body shook, but her voice was silent.
That’s when Eli, the pastor if you will, speaks to her and says, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” Tom McKibbens writes of Eli’s response:
Talk about blaming the victim! Here the religious establishment completely misread reality. It wasn’t the first time, and certainly wasn’t the last time, that a representative of religion would blame the victim. There she is, looking like a wreck, making strange sounds, and generally acting odd, and the religious establishment thinks it is her fault. “I don’t know where you are keeping your booze,” says Eli, “but you can pour it out.” Hannah looks up at him through blurred eyes and says, “It’s not booze I’m pouring out; it’s my soul.” It’s my soul.
Hannah must have known the words of the Psalmists: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”
As I lived with Hannah’s story this week, I tried to think of the last time I poured out my soul to God. Had there ever been a time when my praying could have been mistaken for drunkenness? Have I ever been as honest and vulnerable and free with God as it seems Hannah was that day on the temple steps? I wonder: Have our prayers/my prayers become too sanitized, too formal, too tame? Have we forgotten or did we ever know how to pour out our souls before God?
Hannah’s story gives us permission, even when the religious establishment doesn’t, to pour out our souls before God – to weep, to wail, to act strange before the Holy One. But Hannah’s story gives us something more than that. Her story gives us the permission to hold on to our pain, to go deep into it, to feel it, to trust it, and to live into it. It is her story that reminds us that the only way to get to the other side of what tears at our heart and soul is to go through it. This wisdom is a gift Hannah gives us. Dare we accept it? Dare we take hold of this gift for ourselves? I wonder if we have the courage. And I wonder how this kind of presence to pain is related, if at all, to the Beatitudes.
After Hannah prays, the story tells us that she went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband and “her countenance was sad no longer.” Her countenance was sad no longer. Why? At this point in the story, she’s hurting because she can’t have children, she’s poured out her soul in the temple, and she’s been ridiculed by the holy man. So why is she sad no longer? Of course, the story goes on to explain how “God remembers Hannah” and that she conceives a son, which, by the way, is where the sex comes in. But at this point in the narrative, we don’t yet know that, and we are to presume, that Hannah doesn’t know it either. So why is she sad no longer, when all she has done is pray, cry, and be humiliated? And, again, what does this have to do with the Beatitudes, which haven’t even been enumerated at the time of the writing of this text?
Three weeks ago Bishop Spong reminded us that in order to fully understand the New Testament, we have to read it with Jewish eyes. By that he meant that what we read in the New Testament emerged from Jewish thought and theology, and it is best understood with knowledge of that context. It is wise guidance for reading the Bible. I want to suggest this morning that Hannah’s story offers us insight into the Beatitudes by telling the story of one “poor in spirit” and of the blessing that God offers her. Hannah’s story is told because she is poor is spirit, it is the lesson of this text. So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Here, it means to let go of the attachments that keep us from knowing ourselves as worthy of being loved by God – whether that is bearing a child or being in a fulfilling relationship or having the perfect job or the best sermon or feeling like we have to face our later years with the same independence that has defined our youth. To be poor in spirit means that, like Hannah, we have to be willing to stop trying to be who we wanted to be, or who somebody else wanted us to be, or who we think we are supposed to be, and be the open, vulnerable, sometimes hurt,but always the loved child of God that we are.
A moment of insight and clarity came from the lectionary group this week when someone summarized Hannah’s story in two gestures: holding on tight, and then letting go. How did Hannah hold on tight? She honored her pain. She lived it day to day, and she owned the full extent of it as she brought it all before God in the temple. She was identified by others by her barrenness, and she was brave enough to identify herself with the stigma and loss that barrenness brought in her culture. She held on when it was important to hold on. And how did she let go? Hannah goes so deeply into her pain. She does all that she can do with it and then, and then, she releases it knowing that there was nothing else to do but leave it with the Source of life that is love and grace. Hannah went to the limits of holding on, and when she couldn’t hold on any longer she had the wisdom to let go.
Some of you have heard my Hannah story. It, too, is a story of wanting and waiting for a child and then that moment of great desperation when it seemed as though it would not happen. I planned and worked on the adoption of a child for years. Then we found Nora, and for almost a year of knowing that Nora was “our child” we worked to bring her home from Russia. Then, just weeks before I was scheduled to travel, the phone call came from the adoption agency that there were problems and the adoption was off. I had done everything – pages of paperwork, home studies, preparing her room; but most importantly, loving her in my heart as my own. Many of you had bought and given gifts to welcome her home. And with one phone call, the voice on the other end brought an end to a tightly held dream. There was nothing else to do.
Friends Margaret and John Hilpert were at the house when the call came that evening. After the call, we sat in silence, praying like Hannah, prayers too deep for words. Then at some point, Margaret got up, walked over to this globe that was sitting on a table and called everyone in the room to gather around it. She spun it around and found the words Vladivostok, Russia. She asked each of us to place our hands on the globe as close to those words as we could. Not knowing what else to do, we did. Margaret began praying. Not for a miracle to happen. Not for the adoption to work out. But she prayed that there would be comfort for the pain. She prayed for Nora and for all the children living in orphanages. She prayed for peace. And then she stopped. For the next hour or so we sat with one another, mostly in silence. And I could feel it happening – a letting go, a releasing that I still can’t explain. But I recognize it when I read Hannah’s story. I recognize the letting go when I read that Hannah “went to her quarters, ate and drank with her family and her countenance was sad no longer.” When you have poured out your soul and done all that you can do, what comes next is a letting go. I wonder if that is what it means to be “poor in spirit?” To live our lives knowing that if we pour out our soul to God, if we have the courage to be fully present to the moment before us, we will find the courage to let go of all that keeps us stuck in those places, isolated and disappointed. Could it be that Hannah’s story is a beatitude lesson of what it means to be poor in spirit?
I wonder, what is your Hannah story? We all have one.