1 Samuel 1:4-20 4 Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the Lord had kept her from conceiving. 6 And because the Lord had kept Hannah from conceiving, her rival would make fun of her mercilessly, just to bother her. 7 So that is what took place year after year. Whenever Hannah went to the Lord’s house, Peninnah would make fun of her. Then she would cry and wouldn’t eat anything.8 “Hannah, why are you crying?” her husband Elkanah would say to her. “Why won’t you eat? Why are you so sad? Aren’t I worth more to you than ten sons?” 9 One time, after eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah got up and presented herself before the Lord. (Now Eli the priest was sitting in the chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s temple.) 10 Hannah was very upset and couldn’t stop crying as she prayed to the Lord. 11 Then she made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”12 As she kept praying before the Lord, Eli watched her mouth. 13 Now Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent, so Eli thought she was drunk. 14 “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her. 15 “No sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. 16 Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!” 17 Eli responded, “Then go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him.”18 “Please think well of me, your servant,” Hannah said. Then the woman went on her way, ate some food, and wasn’t sad any longer. 19 They got up early the next morning and worshipped the Lord. Then they went back home to Ramah. Elkanah had sex with his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, which means “I asked the Lord for him.”
Pregnant women have especially been on my mind this week…one of the reasons is obvious…and then there is something that really hit home for me this week and has been weighing heavily upon my heart, and that is the senseless murder of Amanda Blackburn, the 28 year old woman who was shot in her Indianapolis home last Thursday morning during an apparent home invasion. Amanda’s husband is a pastor, they have a 14 month old son, and Amanda was 12 weeks pregnant at the time she was killed. She and her husband had just announced their second pregnancy to their family and friends.
When I heard this news, Corey was out of town and I was home by myself for several days. I’ll confess to you that I became scared and anxious, even in my own home. As I continued to think about and pray about this tragic story and this family and deal with my own fears, I began to wonder how we have reached this point in our world where we are scared to be in our own homes or scared to walk in our neighborhoods, drive our cars, or enjoy the excitement of downtown Indianapolis. I also began to ponder once again the existence of evil in the world and ask myself how someone could possibly live with the knowledge that they have taken someone’s life who was just minding their own business in the privacy of their home- someone who was living their life as a wife and a mother, and a future mother to the life within her.
And in the midst of all of this, I keep asking myself, where is the hope? Where is the hope when we wake up day after day to the news of yet another shooting in our community? Where is the hope when we hear of the massacre in Paris, Beirut, and in other parts of the world? Where is the hope when we hear yet another story of the senseless loss of life? Where is the justice when the victims are still victims and those who have done such a senseless thing run free? Rev. Charles Harrison, pastor of Barnes United Methodist Church and head of the Ten Point Coalition in Indianapolis posted on facebook this past week that there needed to be a prayer vigil for Amanda’s family in the wake of yet another murder caused by gun violence. Many have posted pleas to pray for her family, especially her husband and her son. They are without a doubt being covered in prayer. But in the back of my mind, I ask myself, when is prayer not enough? Does God really hear our prayers and supplications when we pour ourselves to God? When hope is lost? When we have become numb to the gun violence in our communities or when we are facing our own personal hardships and wondering where to turn next? When all hope of new life has gone out the window?
And then there is Hannah- a woman who wanted nothing more than a baby of her own. Hannah lived in a world where a woman’s ability to conceive defined who she was, her worth, her status, and her well-being, especially if she was to bear a son. Hannah faced several issues: estrangement, the need to fulfill her destiny as a mother, and self-validation and self-worth. Perhaps she was even questioned her self-worth in the eyes of God. So she found herself at the temple- desperate, suffering, and feeling broken. I can imagine her asking God, “why me? Why do I suffer?” In Hannah’s case, she showed us that we often suffer because of the insensitivity of others.
First there is Penninah, the other wife of Hannah’s husband, Eli. Penninah sounds a lot like one of the evil step sisters to me! All we are told of Penninah is that she makes fun of Hannah and mocks her because she is unable to conceive a child. And not only that, but Penninah gets double the portion of the sacrifice offered at the temple because she is able to have children, while Hannah only gets a portion. Hannah not only suffers because she is unable to have a child, but she is bullied and degraded by her very own family. I have many friends who have suffered with infertility for years and have tried everything to have children of their own. In today’s world, we are more comfortable talking about the pain and grief associated with the challenges of women not being able to have children, but we are still not totally there. There are women who suffer in silence or do not feel comfortable naming their struggles. I cannot imagine a woman who is berated and made fun of because of such challenges. These are words that pierce the heart and wound the soul, and it would have been no different for Hannah.
Then there is Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, who doesn’t seem to understand that women who dream of motherhood suffer continuously, for whom childlessness is an emotional torture. It is a dreadful, empty void that no husband, no career, and no amount of free time or financial freedom can fill or soothe. Elkanah has trouble grasping this. He begs in childish desperation, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” He still thinks it’s all about him! He turns away from Hannah’s suffering, thinking that his very existence should be enough to make her suffering go away. We hope that Elkanah meant well, but he made her burden heavier instead of lighter (Homileticts).
So finally, Hannah, needing to get away from her husband and sister wife, seeks to find solace in the temple, where she meets the priest, Eli. And instead of helping her, Eli accuses her of being drunk, and misinterprets her intentions and motivations for being there in the first place. How painful it must have been for Hannah to have had her actions and prayers misinterpreted by her religious and spiritual leader! Unfortunately, it does happen, and still happens all the time. Maybe I’ve even been guilty of it myself as your pastor. But to Eli’s credit, he does finally realize what’s going on with Hannah and offers her a blessing as he sends her on her way.
Without a doubt, Hannah carries a heavy burden, as do many of us. For Hannah, it is not lightened by her husband, Penninah, or her priest. But in this case, her burden is lightened by God himself. Hannah wanted a baby more than anything else in the entire world. People thought she was cursed, ridiculous, and perhaps even stupid. But when she poured herself out to God, God poured back into her. This goes back to my earlier question about what happens when we pour out our prayers and supplications to God? Does God hear us? Is prayer enough? In Hannah’s case, she went on to conceive and bear a son, Samuel, who became the last of the judges of Israel and the first prophet. Hannah dedicates her son to the service of the Lord, and he resides in the temple. Samuel sets the state for God’s intervention in the life of Israel- the institution of the monarchy. It is Samuel who anoints the first kings of Israel and sets in motion the events that lead to the anointed ones who God will use to fulfill Israel’s destiny. As with all miraculous births found in the biblical narrative, Samuel’s birth fulfills more than his mother’s desire for a child. He fulfills the destiny set out for him in God’s unfolding story of God and God’s people.
As a pregnant woman, I can identify with Hannah and her desire to be a mother. As a pregnant woman, my heart also breaks for the husband and pastor in Indianapolis who is now without a wife and will never get to meet his unborn child. In both cases, there is immense suffering. In Hannah’s suffering, she turned to God, and in her case, God did something about it. But what about in other cases of suffering? In cases like terminal illness, debilitating sickness, unemployment, gun violence, car accidents, or when there is never a baby to be had, or any other horror- sometimes there’s just no fixing it. Sometimes there is no cure. Sometimes there just isn’t an answer.
As human beings, we want to fix it. We want answers. We want reasons or quick fixes or words to help us understand why these things happen, why there is suffering, or how something can be fixed. Sometimes fixing something or seeking an answer is the easy thing for us to do. The real challenge sometimes is for us to be okay sitting with the unanswered questions, the unknown, and the hopelessness. When we can be content in sitting with the hopelessness for a time, that is when our greatest healing is found. When we can name the terror and work through it and ask, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that is when we find ourselves in places and spaces for vulnerability and room for grace and mercy, and room to walk in the shadows.
After all, the resurrection is born in the crucifixion, and the crucifixion is born from another miraculous birth with the help of another young pregnant woman who poured herself out to God, and God poured back into her. But when there are no answers, no simple solutions, no words to help us understand, and prayers that go unanswered, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t healing. It doesn’t mean that God is absent or isn’t listening, or doesn’t care. It does mean that God sits with us in the hopelessness and suffers with us and hears the outpouring of our hearts and lifts the burdens we carry. When we suffer, when humanity fails us, when there are no easy answers, we lift our eyes to the cross of Christ and hear the invitation to sit at the foot of the cross and dare to sit before it for a time- to be comfortable uttering the words, “I don’t know the answer or how to ease this burden, but in the meantime, I’m going to follow Jesus.”
Hannah’s burden was that she had no baby on board. In today’s world, her heart would have broken every time she saw one of those signs in the back of a car. For the family of Amanda Blackburn, their burden is one of grief at the hands of a senseless tragedy. What is your burden? What are you pouring out to God right now? What are you trying to make sense of? In our sufferings, we should turn to God, despite our many obstacles or hesitations, despite the people that might get in our way or give us a hard time, despite our own hang ups. In God, we may find hope, an answered prayer, or a solution right away. But that doesn’t always happen, and we then face the challenge of being okay with sitting in the hopelessness for a time, wandering through the unknown, or learning to walk in the dark. We have to be okay with sitting at the foot of the cross before we encounter the empty tomb.
And we must be reminded that it is God alone who turns death into life, and crucifixion into resurrection. It is God who can construct good out of the bad, and who invites us to pour out our prayers and supplications to him, no matter what they are or how heavy the burden may be. We may not know or understand or make sense out of the challenges that we face. But we do know that God does not abandon us, and that Christ suffers with us and for us (Homiletics). So we keep praying, we keep pouring ourselves out in prayer and worship, and we keep loving one another as the Body of Christ. And we cling tightly to the cross, knowing that some day, somehow, new life will be born into this world. Amen.