Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor
Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC
Bangor, Maine
November 18, 2018 

Praise the Holy One
1 Samuel 1:4-20

Some years ago I shared a story of a special woman who was remembered much later by a pastor in her community:

She was not a member of my church.  But as is so often the case in rural parishes, she was related to several of my members.  They called her Aunt Laura.  Memory tells me she was not an aunt to anyone but rather an only child who never married.  Nevertheless she was Aunt Laura.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see Aunt Laura walking down the road.  Aunt Laura did not drive or own a car.  It’s Saturday morning.  In her arms are clippings of flowers from her bountiful gardens.  She walks at a rapid clip, born of a lifetime of walking everywhere she went, that belied her eighty-two years.  The morning is cool which accounts for the purple sweater that tops her ankle-length dress.  Cars passing her on the road honked in greeting.  To some she held up an arm not cradling flowers and waved.  The passers-by smiled.  One could not tell if Aunt Laura smiled or not.  Her face was covered by a surgeon’s mask.

At her church, Aunt Laura let herself in with a key.  She proceeded to the altar table, laid her cuttings down, removed last Sunday’s array from the vase, carried them to the trash container, returned and arranged the fresh flowers in the vase to bring beauty to the next day’s worship.

Every Sunday Aunt Laura’s flowers decorated the altar of her church.  It was her gift to God.  Every weekday she labored heartily in her garden.  One garden was for the vegetables she canned to provide her income.  The other was for the flowers she grew to glorify her Lord.  Every day one could pass by her place and see her weeding and pruning, fertilizing and cultivating.  And every day, Aunt Laura’s face would be covered by the surgeon’s mask.

Most of the people in the church were appreciative of Aunt Laura’s offering.  Very few of the people were aware that Aunt Laura was allergic to the flowers.

Rev. Guy Kent, “Sacrificial Giving”

In the past few weeks, you and I have been thinking together about sacrificial gifts, about Biblical offerings that were made by our forebears.  We have spoken about Ruth’s courageous pledge to stay at the side of her mother-in-law, Naomi.  Last Sunday we invoked the famous story of the widow’s mite–the tale Jesus tells of the poor woman who gave all she had to the temple treasury.  Now in today’s lesson, we have another example of sacrificial giving:  Hannah who gives her first born child to God.

At the end of the Book of Judges, we read that “there was no King in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  Uh-oh.  That sounds like code for the 1960’s watchword in our country, “Do your own thing”!  The problem with this kind of thinking, of course, is that the result is chaos: everyone making up laws and rules of behavior as they go along.  Not surprisingly, the people of Israel ultimately decide that a monarchy is what is needed; they opt to have a king.

Enter Elkanah, a man who seems by all accounts to be an ordinary fellow.  He is prosperous enough, however, to have two wives and many children.  One scholar comments that Elkanah could be like a member in any of our churches, but then quickly adds that, on second thought, having two wives may not be typical of laymen in our congregations! (Martin B. Copenhaver, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4).  The crux of the problem is that one of Elkanah wives, Peninnah, has borne him children, but the other wife, Hannah, has not.  She is what the bible calls “a barren woman.”

The theme of barrenness is a familiar one in the pages of the Old and New Testaments.  Like the arid desert which is the ancient near east, some women who inhabit this land suffer from the humiliating problem of infertility.  For women living in this strongly patriarchal culture, producing an heir was their primary function.  Like Sarah before her and Elizabeth after her, Hannah’s womb was closed.  We know that barrenness in the ancient world was “cause for great shame” (Copenhaver).

Not only was Hannah unable to conceive a child, she had to endure the torment of her husband’s other wife.  1 Samuel says that her rival “used to provoke her severely, to irritate her…”  Because they were both married to the same man, the differences between the two women were painfully obvious.  This taunting, this teasing, our lesson tells us, went on unceasingly for years.  Despite the fact Elkanah favored her, we read that Hannah’s inability to become pregnant became a true emotional problem:  “Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.”  Elkanah response is this: “Hannah, why do you weep?  Why do you not eat?  Why is your heart sad?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

We’re not sure if Elkanah comments to his wife are the man’s attempt to be sincerely sympathetic or if he is being dismissive of her situation.  Regardless of his intent, Elkanah words represent “a clumsy response at best” (Copenhaver).

Despite the reality of this very difficult living situation, still Hannah dreams of having a child. She makes a vow that if she is fortunate enough to bring a son into the world, she will give him as a gift to god:  “O Lord of Hosts, if you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you…” that is Hannah’s vow.

To be sure, there are vows that are made and those that are made to be broken.   Connie Insley once shared a United Church of Christ “Daily Devotional” with me.  In reflecting on the woman taken in adultery, Mary Luti is reminded of vows kept and broken:

One day my Italian Catholic aunties were sitting around the kitchen table counting up all the babies they’d had, one after another.  They spoke about how desperate they’d felt as young women, hemmed in by dirty diapers, boiled bottles, sleepless nights.

Suddenly, the oldest confessed she’d contemplated using birth control.

The aunties were aghast.  “But the Pope said it was a sin!”

At the sink washing dishes, my grandmother broke in.  “Of course he said it,” she soothed, “but he didn’t really mean it!”

Jesus said to the woman, “Go and sin no more.”  He expected her to try, and I think she did.  But you know she sinned again.  Maybe not adultery, but in other ways.  Nobody resists the undertow of human weakness for long…

Jesus knew that….even as she, spared from death, resolved to be good, he knew.

“Go and sin no more.”  Of course Jesus said it, but if my grandmother were here, she’d tell you he didn’t really mean it.

Mary Luti, “Sin No More,” UCC Daily Devotional

Well, Hannah meant for her vow to God to be kept.  And then the scene changes to Shiloh, which was an important worship center in that day and time.   There is an ark and a tabernacle there, but no temple.  The one who superintends Shiloh is the old priest, Eli, who sits by the door.

And so after she has had something to eat and drink at Shiloh, the text tells us “Hannah presented herself before the Lord.”  She comes as a seemingly powerless woman armed only with what has been called “trusting prayer” (Kate Huey, “Praise the Holy One,” Weekly Seeds).

But 1 Samuel tells us that she is “deeply distressed” as she weeps bitter tears.  That is when Hannah makes her vow to dedicate a boy child to God.

But as this barren woman is pouring out her heart to God, Eli observes that her lips are moving, but there is no voice to her supplications.  He then supposes that she is drunk.  Eli tells her to stop making a drunken spectacle of herself and to put away her wine.  Hannah says that is not the case, that she is “deeply troubled” and has had no wine to drink. “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman,” says Hannah, “for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”  Then the old priest tells the petitioner to go in peace, with a blessing that her prayer may be granted.

In his commentary on this passage, Eugene Peterson says this:

To Eli, the normal way of prayer, then, is by means of ritual, incense, and animal sacrifice, a gathering of the community directed by a priest.  And then Hannah shows up, without bringing a sacrifice, without asking directions from the priest, and simply prays, soaring past all the liturgical conventions of her age, boldly presenting her petition before her God without benefit of clergy.  She uses her own words, her own voice, without intermediaries.  Later, rabbis focus on Hannah as a model of authentic prayer, ‘the prayer of the heart,’ which eventually replaced sacrifice altogether (Eugene Peterson).

For Peterson, Hannah and Elkanah are both people who “led large lives–large because they live in the largeness of God…God is the country in which they live.”  And so as Hannah leaves Eli, the text tells us that she “was sad no longer.”  

In verse 19, we learn that God remembers Hannah’s prayer.  And in due time, she conceives and gives birth to a male child.  She names the baby “Samuel,” a name which means “I have asked him of the lord.”  Is it any wonder, then, that Hannah’s name means “grace”?

This story from 1 Samuel is rich in irony, of course.  For after enduring all the insults and jabs from Peninnah, Hannah has the last laugh.  She is in good company with other Old Testament women who had difficulties conceiving:  Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Samson’s mother.  And in the case of all of these formerly barren women, the bible records that all of their first-born are destined to become important figures in biblical history (Frank M. Yamada, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4).

At the beginning of chapter two, we have “Hannah’s prayer,” which is the forerunner of the Magnificat.  Hannah has been transformed by the experience of motherhood.  The “woman of silence” finds her voice and is buoyant, confident and energized (Walter Brueggemann).  The prayer begins:  “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.  My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.”

Scholars have wondered out loud why a woman who wishes so desperately to have a child would be willing to give it up again.  We are to be reminded of the tradition in Ancient Israel of sacrificing the fruits–the unblemished calf, the finest grains, the perfect fruits–to Yahweh the creator.  But beyond that, Hannah has taken the long view of childbearing.  Her plan is most probably along these lines:  If I give my first child to God, then God will bless me with more children (Jo Ann Hackett).  Hannah’s plan obviously works, for she ultimately brings three sons and two daughters into the world.

To be sure, Hannah is a prime example of “trusting prayer.”  And in our world today where people tend to exist on anemic prayers, there is surely nothing half-hearted about Hannah’s prayer.   While it has been said she comes from “praying people,” Hannah practices the most elemental, the most real form of prayer.  During my days in Texas, there was an expression people used for folks like Hannah.  Texans would say the woman “prayed believing”; that is to say, she prayed with the full confidence that a miracle would be granted to her.  Clearly Hannah is a person who was totally aware and totally in touch with who she was spiritually.

As 1 Samuel continues, we know that Hannah did, in fact, dedicate her first born to God, and Samuel grew up under the wise influence of Eli.  Through the centuries Hannah has remained a symbol of sacrificial giving–not only for offering her child but also for the gift of herself.   In presenting Samuel as an offering to God, Hannah set a standard that people of all faiths can appreciate.

Around our world today, Christians continue to give their first fruits to the creator.  And we at Hammond Street are doing that through our stewardship campaign, “This is Our Story!”….perhaps you have heard the story of the African youth who walked ten miles to a church service.  When it came time for the offering, the young man had no money to put into the plate.  And so he simply took the offering plate and stood in it, saying, “Long walk part of gift.”

Thanks be to God for Hannah and Aunt Laura and that African youth and people everywhere who continue to give the best of who they are and what they have.  Praise the holy one!

Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty