Today our story begins with a woman named Peninnah who’s married to a man named Elkanah, and they have children together. But Elkanah is also married to Hannah, and what the Bible wants us to know is that Hannah cannot have children. The LORD has closed her womb. In the ancient world, this was a clear sign that she had done something to deserve it. A woman’s infertility was her own fault. So as you might guess, Hannah was devastated.
Now in our world, we know better. We know God doesn’t go around closing wombs in order to teach a lesson. It’s just, women still carry the internalized expectation that we are meant to have children. These days, if you are an adult human female who has not given birth, you will learn to tell yourself again and again: There is nothing wrong with me for not having a baby. And you will be right, I promise. But this is not something that Hannah could say to herself. She couldn’t even believe it when Elkanah said it to her.
I can’t tell you how this happens, and I wish I could. The Bible doesn’t explain it. It’s the part of the story that turns in the dark. But somehow…
Even though Elkanah knows what it means when a woman could not get pregnant, he decides to not blame Hannah. Instead, he tries to console her. He gives her extra food, even though her despair makes it so she can’t even eat. He supports Hannah at every turn. I’m not saying he’s trying to be a feminist, but Elkanah’s tender choices absolutely threaten the power of the patriarchy.
And so it is, one day after Hannah refused to eat or be consoled, she went to the temple to come before the LORD. Hannah wept bitterly, and she got really honest with God. Hannah thought she was praying silently, but her lips were moving, and the priest of the temple, Eli, saw her. He thought she was drunk, and he yelled at her!
I can’t tell you how this happens, the Bible doesn’t explain it. It’s the part of the story that turns in the dark. But when Hannah protests and shames the priest, Eli doesn’t double down. He doesn’t get defensive. He makes the tender choice to see that he was out of line, and she is telling the truth. Go in peace, he tells her. God will answer you.
I can’t tell you how, the Bible doesn’t explain it… Somehow when she’s in the temple, the mercy of God turns inside of Hannah’s soul, and you know what. She changes her prayer! Remember all this time, her intention was unfaltering. All she wanted in all the world was to have a baby. She wouldn’t eat or sleep, every word from Peninnah taunting her, every period tormenting her! Something happened in the dark of her soul, and Hannah made the tender choice that if she could have a baby, she would give him up to the LORD.
We don’t know whether God offered this deal to Hannah or whether Hannah offered it to God, all we know is she made the choice to change her purpose. She changes her prayer, and once she did, it changes the whole trajectory of the story of the Israelites.
Now if the featured miracle of the story is that Hannah and Elkanah got pregnant with Samuel, the other miracle is whatever caused Elkanah to love Hannah instead of blame her, the other miracle is whatever caused Eli to realize that she was telling the truth, it’s whatever made Hannah change her prayer. The other miracle is how the Holy Spirit goes to work in the dark giving birth to the tender choices that turn the world upside down.
These days, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the deep divisions in our nation. Fourteen years ago, I really believed that, as a nation, we were more united than we were divided. I mean, I know we had our differences, but when it came to what was really important, we could come together. I took to heart the famous quote displayed at Eden Seminary. It goes: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
I will tell you, these days I’m not so sure about our unity. These days, when it comes to our differences, the stakes have been raised. So it’s not that some people prefer to build a wall along the southern border while others would prefer that we don’t. It’s not that some people prefer to insist Black Lives Matter while others simply prefer not to. Our disagreements are not differences of preference. In our country, we disagree with each other in our core values. We are divided at the place of our deepest fears.
And yet, it could be that the growing distance between red and blue is not even our biggest problem. It could be, the greater threat is giving in to the forces that tell us to choose our side, and stay on our side, and become entrenched.
And I get it, this is how it looks on paper. We chart out how demographic differences line up with geographical differences, which line up with political differences, which lead to claims like rural white voters are conservative (and some are) while urban Black voters are liberal (and some are) and we don’t see the deep roots of these divisions, and we do see how we belong to one side or the other. It’s right there on the chart! It’s just…
It’s just, we also know actual people. Actual human people are far more interesting and hopeful than whichever side we have fled to. Actual people find themselves unable to fall asleep because the LORD has troubled our conscience; she has turned our prayer. Actual people make brave and tender choices that change the trajectory of the story. These choices don’t show up on the charts, but you and I know. These choices show up at church.
Here’s something to consider: When you go and vote this fall, somebody else from Church of Peace is voting for the opposing candidate. And sure we all know that, but here’s the thing: it’s probably somebody you deeply respect and love. There are people you care about who would show up to help you on the worst night of your life, people who sang Borning Cry when your baby was baptized, people who came to the funeral for your sister —there are people you care about who will be thrilled if Biden wins, and there are people you care about who will be thrilled if Trump wins.
And if you’re wondering how that’s possible, I can’t tell you. The Bible doesn’t explain it. It’s the turning of mercy in the dark of our soul. It’s the tender choice to take seriously what is at stake for somebody else, how are they afraid. It’s the tender choice to make room for each other, and wait for each other, and notice each other’s hurt, and honor each other’s truth.
Bishop Yvette Flunder is a UCC pastor famous for serving City of Refuge, a congregation that is brazenly inclusive. She talks about the church taking seriously this work of making room for each other. She says this: “We can wait for each other. We can hope and believe that those who say cruel things today will say kind things tomorrow… I must bear with you and you must bear with me. We can’t give up on one another, for we are all the body of Christ, and we can wait for each other.”1This comes from Bishop Flunder’s writing on Paul’s teaching about the practice of communion from First Corinthians. I am grateful to Dr. Benjamin Reynolds for sharing this quote.
As though the church could give our world something the charts can’t!
As though the church could give sanctuary to the grace in the dark that troubles our conscience and changes our minds.
As though we could give this to each other…
After Hannah had given birth to Samuel, and after she finished breastfeeding him, she took her tiny child back to the same priest at the temple in order to give him up to the LORD. As it goes in the story, Hannah was filled with the Spirit, and the song of God’s power poured out of her being. My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God… because you know what God does.
The LORD breaks the weapons of the military, but God gives strength to those who can barely get out of bed. Those of us who had gotten used to our fully-stocked pantries now have nothing to eat, but the child who’s been subsisting on peanut butter crackers will finally have a real dinner. The LORD kills, and the LORD brings to life. God brings down the powerful, and God lifts up those who were despairing. God topples the giant and raises the shepherd who sings to his sheep. This is the power of the LORD, and we know it. We know God is not finished shattering the ways we’ve become entrenched, bringing sorrow to those who laugh, and bringing joy to those who mourn, and turning our story upside down. It’s just-
It’s just, there’s something we can’t see inside the swinging.
It’s whatever made Elkanah withhold his blame, and Eli realize she was telling the truth, and Hannah change her prayer. It’s the choice to drop the stone instead of throw it at the person being bullied, the choice to save the furiously-written email in the drafts folder instead of hitting send, the choice to deliver a casserole to your neighbor when his wife is in the hospital even though they have a sign in their yard for exactly the person you’re not going to vote for.
I can’t tell you how, but here in the dark, the grace of the LORD our God gets into the story and changes its trajectory. In these days, God is getting into the dark of the world, and the Spirit is whispering to each of us, Go on. You could make the tender choice.
And you and I know, the world has been changed by less.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||This comes from Bishop Flunder’s writing on Paul’s teaching about the practice of communion from First Corinthians. I am grateful to Dr. Benjamin Reynolds for sharing this quote.|