Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Samuel 1.4-20
15 November 2009, Ordinary 33B
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only 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 as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’
This is going to be an odd thing for a pastor to say, and some of you may be shocked to hear it, but stick with me. Sometimes, I hate people. Not individuals, but people—the whole lot of us. I know, I know, hate is a strong word and is not to be used lightly, and I should say that I “intensely dislike” instead, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, I do hate people. I know that hate is not a part of what God intends for us or for this world, but while we strive for the more excellent way we are still broken people, so I’m willing to go ahead and confess this to all of you: I hate when we exclude others because they are different from us. I hate when we act in ways that are hurtful to our planet. I hate when we withhold love to prove a point. I hate when our expectations of ourselves and one another obscure who we are as children of God. These times make me want to ask why we can’t all just get along, everyone love everyone, sing in perfect harmony…come on people, now!
The beginning of this story brings all of that up for me. Hannah wants to have children, but can’t. And Peninnah has dozens, it sounds like, and taunts Hannah because of this difference. And Elkanah isn’t helping, since he clearly loves one of his wives more than the other, but also one wife is more valuable than the other, and those two things don’t line up. It almost seems as if the whole society is conspiring to bring Hannah into a deep depression. And they are, really, because she is worthless. Hannah is a woman without children—in her culture, she has no value, no meaning, no purpose. She’s just taking up space.
Thankfully, we no longer believe that about childless women. Those of us who either choose not to be parents or who can’t be parents though we might want to are still valued members of society, worthwhile members of families, and lead meaningful lives. But I suspect we do believe it about others in different situations. Our culture values work, for instance, and often those without work feel as though they contribute nothing—like they are worthless. Those who have no home to live in sometimes feel as though they have no value as people because they have no possessions of value. I would be willing to bet that we can each think of either a person or a category of people that we consider to be in some way lacking worth, lacking value, lacking purpose, taking up space.
That’s the place in which Hannah lives. Everyone around her knows what she is. She knows what she is, too—she’s a smart girl, she knows what people are saying and she has internalized the message of her society. So she does the only thing left for her to do—she takes her despair into the temple, at the height of a festival in which sadness is prohibited. Even here, she can’t bring herself to speak out loud—she moves her lips but her voice is silent. But in that silence, in that pleading, in that conversation, Hannah finds something. She renews her relationship with the God who is love, and she discovers that all she had thought, all she had believed, all she had wept over, was a lie.
That’s right, a lie. Hannah had been told a lie, she had bought into it, she had lived it for all of her adult life. And I would be willing to bet that many of us buy into this same lie—I know I certainly do sometimes. It’s hard not to—it’s sold to us every day, in most of our conversations, in all of our advertising, in many of our TV shows and movies, and sometimes even in our families and churches. And when I say it, you are all going to roll your eyes and say how obvious it was, but it’s still out there and we are still living it, even if subconsciously.
The lie is this: that our value, our worth, our purpose is determined by the things we have, the things we do, the job we perform, the family members we relate to, or anything else at all.
Pure and simple, it’s a lie. Your value, your worth, is determined by one thing and one thing only. You are a child of God. Period. You are loved beyond belief, valuable beyond measure, priceless, because God loves you. That’s it.
Does that mean that we don’t do wrong things sometimes? Does that mean we are perfect and wonderful and lovely at every moment? Does that mean we aren’t still broken, living in a world where love is often the last rather than first thought? No. But it does mean that we are not defined by those things. That is not who we are, not where we find our worth.
To discover our worth, we don’t need to bear children or do the right job or say the right things or live in the right neighborhood or wear the right brand of shoes or be little miss perfect all the time. All we need to find our worth is to renew our relationship with God, who made us and calls us, and who chooses us before we can even respond. That is the heart of our story.
The first question in one of our Presbyterian teaching tools is this: “who are you?” Normally we would answer “I’m Teri, I’m a pastor, I’m a cat owner, I’m a motherless daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a colleague, I’m a sister, I’m a musician…” and so on. But none of those are the answer. The answer is “I am a child of God.” That’s it. And that, friends, is the truth, and the good news of the gospel. Once we know this truth, we can join our newfound voices with Hannah’s and sing about the world being changed at last into the kingdom of God...
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Those who were well-fed are begging for bread,
while the hungry are served second helpings.
The barren has a houseful of children,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
God brings death and brings life,
brings down and raises up.
God puts poor people on their feet again;
God rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope,
Restoring dignity and respect to their lives.
For the very structures of earth are God's;
God has laid out a firm foundation, and not by might does one prevail.
Thanks be to God.