November 15, 2015
Rev. Tina Walker-Morin
Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC
So no family is perfect. Looking at my family it might look from the outside to be the perfect American family. Two parents, a mom and dad both gainfully employed having success in their careers, raising four girls in the church. All four girls went to college and then graduate school, no one got in trouble as a youngster, no drug or legal issues. The biggest issue was my speeding tickets.
But my family of origin was/is not perfect. There has been suffering. Those of you who are attending my ordination later today will notice my family there. My three sisters, two who are with us this morning, their husbands and my two nephews. My aunt and uncle from Tennessee and Tracy’s family. Her sister and brother-in-law, their two girls, my mother and father-in-law and Tracy’s aunt and uncle. But noticeably absent will be my parents.
My parents have chosen to not attend my ordination and I would be lying if I said it does not hurt, that I don’t feel the sting and that I haven’t allowed myself to suffer from their decision. We all experience suffering in our lifetimes, we all have had disappointment and wondered why, and fall into that pit of self-loathing and this is where we meet Hannah today in the first book of Samuel from the Old Testament.
To give you a little background information, the books of Samuel describes the rise of the Kings in Israel. Samuel, who is Hannah’s son, was viewed as a prophet and divinely appointed leader capable of functioning as priest, seer, war leader, and judge. He is the last Judge before the kings become rulers over Israel. He is the prophet who appoints King David.
Hannah is suffering because she is barren. That is a tough position to be in both in her day as well as today. Many women suffer because they are unable to have children. What makes matters worse for Hannah is that during her time “children, particularly sons were not just tiny humans to love and nurture. They represented the future -- life beyond the present generation -- in a very real and concrete way. Sometimes we forget that for ancient Israelites, the concept of life-after-death and heaven was nebulous, perhaps even non-existent. Thus, during the time in which the Hebrew Bible was written, Israelites imagined "life-after-death" as unfolding in the lives of their descendants.” So Hannah’s future and legacy is in jeopardy. Her husband, Elkanah, and his other wife, Peninnah is secured through her many children. To make matters worse, Peninnah had rubbed it all in Hannah’s face. Peninnah would “provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.” (1 Samuel 1:6) and this would continue for years.
Now before we continue there is one thing I want to iterate and that is that I believe the Bible is written by people to relay their experiences of God. So the way I read this passage, I do not believe that God “closed Hannah’s womb”, that God made her barren. But I do believe that this is what she or the author of the text believed.
So here we have Hannah who is suffering first because she can’t have children and secondly because her sister-wife Penniah is being cruel to her. So Hannah wept and did not eat (v. 7) She went into that self-loathing mood that I can attest to. But I must say I often cry and eat. I reach for my comfort foods and feel bad for myself.
Then steps in Elkanah, a typical guy trying to help but not quite knowing what to say. He says, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (v. 8). Oh good try Elkanah, but it is not about you! He doesn’t get it and Hannah is left still feeling the pains of suffering. Nothing is going her way. She can’t have children, she is being bullied by her husband’s other wife, her future is not secure and her husband doesn’t get it. I imagine she is at her wits end, so what does she finally do? She turns to God as it is stated: “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.” (v10).
Have you even been at that place where the tears won’t stop and you are sitting on the floor weeping and just praying to anyone who will listen? Maybe it is God, maybe it is Jesus, and maybe it is just to get it out of you?
I imagine that is what Hannah is experiencing. She has taken it all in, she is beaten down and the only thing left she can do is pray. As she prays, the priest Eli believes her to be drunk because she is praying silently but moving her lips. She says to him, “do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and frustration all this time” (v16). Eli then prays with her and once they are finished praying her “countenance was sad no longer”, her face, her soul was no longer sad. Wow, now that is some powerful prayer.
As I was in seminary and working through the steps to becoming ordained, prayer was a big topic of discussion. Questions were asked like, what does prayer mean, or how do we pray? At times I pray and I do not feel any different and I learned long ago that even if I ask God for something in prayer that does not mean I will get what I want. For example, when I was 14 my golden retriever’s body was riddled with cancer. I of course asked God to heal her. Well my poor baby died anyway. I have heard and personally know of too many accounts where we perceived prayers were unanswered.
Does this mean we should stop praying? Well no. Prayer is about so much more than getting what we want. In fact, getting what we want is not even the point of prayer. Jesus taught the disciples that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:6-8). God knows what we need before we ask.
Prayer is about opening the door to let God in. Sometimes the best prayers are the simplest. The New York Times bestselling author and theologian, Anne Lamott has come up with three simple prayers, HELP, THANKS and WOW.
Help she states that this is the “first great prayer”. Help, God enter this mess. Help, this is really all too much. Or, Help, he is going to leave me, or I have no life etc… So when we cry out for Help, or mutter it through our tears in prayer “help means that we ask that Something [God] give us courage to stop in our tracks, right where we are, and turn our eyes to something else.”
I think that maybe Hannah reached this point and cried out for help when she prayed “Let your servant find favor in your sight” (v18). She then departs and “her countenance was sad no longer” (v18). She leaves as if her prayer was already answered, but she did not know when her prayer would be answered for God answers her prayer “in due time”. In fact, we don’t know if it was years later or when but in due time she became pregnant with Samuel. And this is where Anne Lamont’s other two prayers, Thanks and Wow would fit in.
Some might think the miracle for Hannah was giving birth to Samuel who would become a prophet and anoint David King (1 Samuel 16:12-13). But I believe the miracle is seeing how it took Hannah years of sorrow and suffering to reach the breaking point and as she wept she finally turned to God in prayer.
What great hope this gives us. We too get sucked into our own self-pity and sorrow. And you know what, God is still here. God is always with us waiting for us to turn and simply pray, Help.
This past week had a few tough days for me and I used writing this sermon as therapy. I went from being angry and upset, eating donuts for lunch, to studying and praying. I asked God for Help....Help me take back control of my emotions, help me get through this day. God help me.
And today I pray Thanks. Thank you God for all these wonderful people, thank you for my sisters travelling to bear witness to my ordination. Thank you God.
And lastly, Wow.
Wow, I am loved.
 Karla Suomala, “Commentary on 1Samuel 1:4-20”, Working Preacher https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1478
 Lamontt, Anne “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three essential prayers” (Riverhead Books: New York, 2012), 15.
 Lamontt, Anne “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three essential prayers” (Riverhead Books: New York, 2012), 29.
 Lamontt, Anne “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three essential prayers” (Riverhead Books: New York, 2012), 40.