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Little waves that will go out into the world

1Samuel 1:4-20

November 15, 2015

Year B

The book of Samuel begins with the birth of a son to a woman previously childless. Hannah is the favourite wife of Elkanah and together they have no children. Elkanah does his best to convince Hannah that she doesn’t need to have children. He says to her, “Hannah why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart so sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” He loves her with all his heart in her barrenness.

One might say that this is a very unlikely Old Testament story – it is hardly the response we would expect from a Patriarch who usually only sees value in women as child bearers. But here we have a story where the man is saying, it’s not important Hannah – I love you regardless of your ability to bear children. Then the penny drops – and we learn that Elkanah has children with another wife. He has several sons and daughters. The other woman’s name is Peninnah and she is in a position where she torments Hannah because she is childless.

Elkanah is prominent enough and wealthy enough to have two wives, one to love and one to make children with, he has sons to honour him and to carry on his name. His lack of understanding for Hannah is insensitive. He has it all and Hannah is without the very thing she wants most – a family. Hannah may have loved her husband, but she still needed children, and not only for her personal emotional fulfillment. In her society a woman’s prestige was based on her ability to produce offspring. The text goes as far as to say that it was Yahweh that closed Hannah’s womb and so the society believed that it was the wrath of God that caused Hannah’s barrenness. This is not a physical sort of thing, it is a decision made by Yahweh and indeed a punishment from him.

Hannah seems to agree with this understanding and she takes her case directly to God. If God closed her womb then there must be a way to open her womb. She prays to Yahweh and she prays: “God, if you give me a son I will give that son back to you as a temple servant.”

The story at this point is very telling. Hannah wants a child; we would assume she would want to keep that child, but she is willing to give her child up once he is weaned. All Hannah wants is to give birth to a son. Then her position in the society will be secure even though she will live without children. However, it is possible to take another view of Hannah’s vow.

In Israel one gave the first fruits of animals and of the harvest to Yahweh, probably in hopes of receiving in return the blessing of continued fertility. Indeed, if you read on, Hannah gives her son Samuel to Yahweh with the idea this will produce more children. At the time of this handing over, Eli says to Elkannah, “May Yahweh repay you with children by this woman Hannah for the gift she made to Yahweh.” Indeed, Hannah has three sons and two daughters.

When have you felt like Hannah? When have you felt crushed, angry and unfulfilled? What if you had been prevented from doing what you wanted most – how would you have reacted? What would you have done? How does this story speak to you? What part do you understand most about Hannah?

I remember as a young child, that if I wanted something and I couldn’t have it, I would cry and wail until something was produced, something that would stop the crying. I can remember what that felt like. I can remember what that wailing sensation that welled up from deep inside felt like. I also remember what it felt like to receive something that stopped the wailing. I can imagine the relief that Hannah must have felt when she found herself pregnant.

When I grew up, I stopped wailing. Or, at least, I stopped wailing to my parents. I remember asking God for what I thought I absolutely had to have. God did not answer my prayers no matter how loudly I wailed. Perhaps I didn’t ask for the right thing. I would suspect that we can all recall being Hannah at some point in our lives; we can remember when we pleaded with God to give us what we thought we needed most in the world.

Then what? What happens next?

I suppose most of us grow up and we stop asking for what we can’t have. We learn to discern and to be responsible. We learn to ask God for what seems reasonable, we ask for courage, strength, and health. We might ask for wisdom to live a life pleasing to others and to the world. That is exactly what Hannah did only then the asking was not the same as it is now.

The relationship Hannah had with God was not the same as the one that you likely have with God/Yahweh/Spirit. Hannah prayed to a powerful God that could do what he liked with her womb. Three thousand years later we don’t have that same relationship with God. But, nonetheless, what has happened to wanting the impossible?

Hannah asked for what appeared to be impossible and in the end she received what she desired and more. Why wouldn’t we seek the impossible, why don’t we ask God for what appears impossible? We should wail and demand that we have what we want. Why not? What would it hurt? We feel better if we find opportunity to wail. Believe me – I know.

What shall we demand? Or we might remember to use a more gentle Celtic tone and begin our requests with, “
May I.” We might demand, or ask gently, that Yahweh look after the church. We could ask for money to fill our local food bank to overflowing, money for our local projects, money for the homeless, money and goods for the women’s centre, a place for the refugees, we might pray for all of this. Hannah became pregnant when all seemed lost, so why not ask for a bit of money, you never know what might happen.

Eli Wiesel (the well-known Holocaust survivor and author) tells this story. In Africa, two men stand at a river, which they are about to cross, when they notice crocodiles looking at them. Are you afraid says one to the other? Don’t you know that God is merciful and good? Yes, I do, say’s the frightened man, but what if God chooses right now to be good to the crocodiles?

No matter what our fears are, and there are indeed crocodiles everywhere, we always need to develop the opportunity to be in relationship with one another. Hannah did that and partly that happened through a process called prayer. Prayer holds God accountable somehow, the act of praying, of pleading, of wailing, all of that invites participation, we are no longer alone, some sort of energy, some sort of spirit, the God that we imagine that is with us in the world is with us.

Dillard writes,

Often in a church I have thought that while there is scant hope for me, I can ask God to strengthen the holiness of all these good people here, that man, that woman, that child, and I do so. In St. Anne’s Basilica it struck me in the middle of a white-robed priest’s French service that possibly everywhere in every house of prayer on earth thinks this way. What if we were all praying for one another in the hope that the others are holy, when we are not? Of course this must be the case. Then-again possibly- surely it adds up to something or other?
Annie Dillard page 161 “For the time being”

Annie Dillard page 161 “For the time being”

I agree with Dillard, it has to add up - because this energy, this spirit, this God force, I believe, is our soul. This same energy is the consciousness of the universe. So when we pray maybe the words, or thoughts we have, are like little waves coming up out of the depths of our being and they make their way up and out to join with all the other words, thoughts and prayers that are out there, if so, then it becomes an energy contained by all creation.

If we are willing to enter into that sort of process, then I believe we can expect an answer to our prayer and maybe not the answer we want, but nonetheless an answer. Hannah said, “I won’t leave this alone.” I demand attention. She demands participation.

When Hannah prays, she asks God to remember her.
Maria Campbell the author of “Halfbreed” and a teacher, said that the word remember is an important word because to remember is the process of becoming whole. In the process of writing her book Campbell remembered and at the end she experienced wholeness. That is true for Hannah, when she asks God to remember her what she is really asking for is to be made whole.

There is much to remember, if you had time now to ask God to remember you, what is it that you need – right now – what do you need – if that sound is to come from the depths of your soul, what would it sound like?

Remember what Annie Dillard says, that your prayers will mix with everyone else’s and that energy will become one. Surely it will make a difference. If everything and everyone is a holy presence; then how will you approach your prayer? How is it that we will all ever agree on what the world needs?

As many of you know, I worked on Haida Gwaii for seven years and one Sunday at Thanksgiving, I gave thanks for gun control. Needless to say someone walked out. Slammed the door and went and sat in his car. But before he left he gave his collection envelope to the woman sitting beside him. That was my first clue that the relationship might be saved. I had many conversations with this man and in the end we agreed that I would learn to shoot and I would do that by going to target practice with him and he would watch
Michael Moore films with me. We did these things together and we remain pretty good friends. My target practice sheets hang on my wall as a reminder to myself that relationship is important and that we are called to make relationships work.

It is time to pull these pieces together. I agree it’s a lot to ask of one another: we are being asked to consider Hannah and her story which involves a lot of wailing and we too want to demand Yahweh’s attention. We want to turn that wailing energy into little waves that will go out into the world and connect us together in right relationship. All the while we watch for the crocodiles…

Sharon Ferguson-Hood