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Sunday, November 18, 2018 |
9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
A Letter to Hannah
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
1 Samuel 1:4–20
God, by your power, you give futures; by your goodness, you give hope; by your mercy, you make new. So we bid you this day come to our shut-down places and give birth anew.
8/18/19 (a date that feels right around the corner)
To my daughter Hannah Lee on her eighteenth birthday,
First of all, thank you, Hannah. Thank you for giving me permission to read this letter aloud to the congregation of Fourth Presbyterian Church during your senior year of high school. Your father and I hope we have managed to parent you in a way that, even as a preacher’s kid, more often than not you have found church to be a place to stretch your mind and heart, to learn about God’s claim on your life, and to be loved. I appreciate that you are letting me use this letter as a way for all of us in the congregation to explore the biblical text of Hannah.
As I have told you before, you have your name because of this biblical Hannah. Four years before you were born, your father and I were seminary students in Walter Brueggemann’s Hebrew exegesis class. First and Second Samuel were the books with which we had to work, translating the Hebrew and listening for God’s Word through all of the nuances of interpretation and language. That class is how we became deeply acquainted with the Hannah of 1 Samuel. And that is how her story led to your story.
As you have heard me say in reference to other biblical texts, in these ancient days of Hannah, it was extremely important for a woman to have a child—and not just a child, but a son. Now before we go any further, I am compelled to say a couple of things about that reality. First, I imagine that for a lot of people having a child is still a very important desire. It was for me. One day it may be for you. But throughout my ministry, I have also known many for whom that desire turned to heartbreak for one reason or another. My own heart has broken alongside theirs as I have been witness to their struggle with wanting a child and receiving only loss instead.
To be honest with you, Hannah’s story is a challenging one to preach when you know folks who’ve endured that kind of heartbreak, for many of them have also had Hannah’s prayer on their own lips, yet they have not found the same resolution. So, my Hannah, please be aware of their pain as you continue to move into adulthood. I have held it in the front of my mind as I have written this letter.
But when I talk about the pressure for our biblical Hannah to have a child, I am not only talking about emotional longing. I am also talking about a social and economic reality, too. In Hannah’s day, a woman’s worth was strongly tied to her ability to bear children—specifically, sons. Only if she had a son would she be guaranteed to have a future, especially if or when she was widowed: he would be a source of literal sustenance and protection. A woman without a son could easily become a woman without a name, without a voice, without any sense of power or agency in the world. A childless woman, especially a childless widow, was a person often forced to the margins and devalued. Perhaps it can be difficult for us to fully grasp that reality, but that was Hannah’s reality. And it is still a reality that continues to exist for women all around our world. In some cultures, women continue to only be as valuable as the sons they birth.
So knowing that desperate need to have a son in order to have any kind of a meaningful and safe future, we can start to understand Hannah’s distress over her barrenness. Now, it did not help that Elkanah’s other wife (side note: don’t get me started about traditional biblical family values . . .) tortured Hannah over her infertility, making fun of her, bullying her. As a matter of fact, Hannah’s despair grew so thick that she could not eat. She could not sleep. She could not stop herself from weeping. Yet her husband was unable to empathize with her severe emotional state. “Am I not more to you than ten sons? Why are you so upset?” he would ask her. I’ve always found it quite unfortunate he did not choose to say, “Hannah, you mean more to me than ten sons. I am so sorry you are upset.” That kind of love might have made a difference in Hannah’s heart. But that is not what Elkanah said.
Our story tells us Hannah’s deep distress went on year after year after year. And it always worsened on the high holy days. Every year, as Elkanah, Peninnah, and Hannah went to the temple for the time of sacrifice, Hannah was bitterly reminded of what she did not have: a son, a promise of a future, a name, a sense of hope. And every year, as Elkanah and Peninnah and Eli watched, Hannah sunk more and more into her grief—frail, distressed, not eating, not sleeping, only weeping. A muted voice of despair.
My sweet Hannah, I know what you must be thinking by now: “That’s great, Mom. You and Dad named me for a woman who was so sad she could not even lift her eyes. Thanks.” I would agree with you, but we have not yet reached the end of Hannah’s story. Actually, if her story stopped here in her despair, you might not bear her name. Yet you bear her name because of the very next sentence. So listen extremely carefully.
In the middle of her despair, in the middle of her physical, emotional, and spiritual barrenness, in the middle of her deep distress, Hannah rose. Hannah rose. Now, I understand if, at first, you do not feel the power of that simple sentence construct. But we have to remember, Hannah was without a name, without any sense of power, without any kind of hope. She was tormented, lost in her grief, so beat down that she could not eat, or sleep, or do anything but weep until no tears were left. Yet in the middle of all that soul-crushing weariness and hopelessness, one morning at the temple, Hannah rose. She got up. She stood up. She pushed through her pain, through her hopelessness, through her barrenness, and she rose.
The same verb, by the way, the one for “rose,” is used for those times in the New Testament when Jesus heals someone and brings them back to fullness and life, when he raises them up. That exegetical link helps us see that it was in that same spirit of resurrection and healing that Hannah rose. And after rising, Hannah marched right up to that temple, right up to that place where she believed God made God’s home, right up into that holy, sacred space, and she poured out her soul to her God—unfiltered and unashamed. Smack dab in the middle of her deep despair, Hannah dared to rise and Hannah dared to pray. She poured it all out, crying as she prayed, still so caught by her pain that she was only able to move her mouth with the words, unable to give her prayer audible sound. “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on me and remember me and not forget me,” she began.
I have to stop again, my Hannah, to make sure we realize something else very important. In ancient Israel, women typically did not just go to the temple and pray for themselves, without the aid of a husband or a priest. That was not considered normal behavior. But Hannah did. She dared to rise. She dared to go to her temple. And she dared to pray to her God, the One who created her, the One who knit her together in her mother’s womb. And she prayed in order to remind God of God’s responsibility to look at her, to see her in her pain just as God saw Hagar in her pain, to remember her, and to answer her.
My sweet Hannah, just pause for a moment and drink in her courage and her stubborn faith. Now, as I wrote above, even as she prayed, Hannah was still so distressed that she could not put sound to her words. She could only move her lips. And as a result, the priest Eli just saw this woman—this woman without a husband anywhere nearby, this woman whom he had observed year after year unable to stop weeping—he saw her and noticed she was still crying her eyes out and moving her mouth nonsensically. Thus, Eli made the interesting assumption she must be drunk and then told her so. Eli was not exactly the posterchild for pastoral sensitivity.
Yet this Hannah, this Hannah who dared to rise and who dared to pray, responded to the priest and told him he was completely wrong. She was not drunk. Rather, she was pouring out her soul to the God who had made a covenant with her ancestors in order to boldly let her God know it was time for God to step up and be her God and remember her. In response Eli, who frankly strikes me as someone who simply wanted to pacify her and get her to go home, uttered a quick blessing: “Go in peace. May God grant your petition.” And my Hannah, you know what? Not only did this Hannah dare to rise. Not only did this Hannah dare to pray. Not only did this Hannah dare to stand up for herself with the priest. But this Hannah, for whom you are named, also dared to believe that God would indeed answer her prayer in God’s time and in God’s way.
As soon as she had courageously poured out her soul—all her bitterness, all her despair, all her weariness, all her pain—to God in prayer, she rose once again, returned to her husband, ate and drank until she was satisfied. Our text says that her countenance was sad no more. I find that beautiful. Apparently, this Hannah knew in the depth of her very being that, despite appearances to the contrary, her God was a God who remembered her. Her God was a God with whom she could be completely honest and hold nothing back. She did not need to protect God from her feelings of betrayal, anger, or abandonment. God was big enough to handle all of that. Rather, Hannah believed that her God was a God who respected her stubborn insistence of faith. Her God was a God who would eventually bring life out of barrenness, hope out of hopelessness, joy out of despair. Her God, your God, my God, our God, was a God who could be trusted, who would act, and who would respond in God’s good time and in God’s good way. A God who, in response to Hannah’s own tenacity, decided to use a voiceless, marginal woman to change the course of history.
For as you heard at the very end, the biblical Hannah’s son was Samuel, and Samuel was the beginning of the monarchy of Israel, the one who eventually anointed King David, the beginning of a new life and a new time for God’s chosen people. Again, when we take the long view of all of this, we find it to be stunning. Given all that I have told you about the place of women in that ancient culture, it is astonishing that God would dare to use a woman—a barren, distressed, marginal woman named Hannah—to begin Israel’s monarchy. God dared to begin creating new life not just for Hannah but for all God’s people precisely in a place of emptiness, of powerlessness, of weariness and despair and hopelessness.
I must admit that when I state that affirmation of our faith for you, my Hannah, I still get chills. Especially in our day and time, as real and verbal fires continue to rage and the loss of actual life along with the collateral damage to our collective soul continues to increase; when I have recently had innumerable conversations with church members who regularly feel powerless, weary, and despairing; if even in the face of all that I can pause and remember that the way God acted with Hannah is still the way God chooses to work in our world—often in a manner that completely violates our reason and our logic—well, my soul is fed. I hope your soul is nourished too by that realization of God’s continuing goodness.
I could keep going, my Hannah. I could tell you about Hannah’s song that follows this birth story. I could show you how she began as a muted voice of despair but ended singing songs of revolutionary praise, foreshadowing mother Mary’s own song. But it is time to stop. It is an emotional thing for me, as your mother, as a pastor, to relay the story of your namesake. But I needed you to know. As you begin this next stage of your life, heading off to college next fall, I wanted you to know just why your father and I dared to name you Hannah, after this daring woman named Hannah of 1 Samuel, in the hopes it might embolden you to claim God’s promises for yourself, to dare to be a Hannah of courage.
By the way, if your father had gotten his way, you would not have been named Hannah Lee with my grandmother’s middle name. Rather, you would have been named Hannah Rose. For indeed she did. And thanks to her daring initiative and God’s daring response, they both gave birth to a new beginning. May it be so for you as well. May it be so for us all. To God be all power and glory this day and forever. I love you, my sweet girl.