Prevailing in Prayer
Updated: Aug 6
This sermon was preached on November 18, 2018 At Broadway United Church of Christ In New York, New York. Text for Sermon: 1 Samuel 1:4-20
Where does your mind go when you hear this word?
Is it a past and distant memory that you never want to relive again?
Is it something that you carry close to your heart day in and day out?
Maybe you associate (or better yet, you disassociate) with something about your personality, a constant pain in your body, or consistent disconnection in a relationship that you keep hoping will change. Yet because of the consistent nature of this hardship, it is perhaps too painful to acknowledge the hardship as hardship for yourself.
Maybe you don’t strongly identify with hardship. Maybe life is pretty good right now. Your greatest hardship is our blessed MTA. Which (not to diminish the reality of this hardship) for most of us in this room, we likely are still able to get to our destinations at the end of the day. Even if we do have to carry a bit more stress than we were hoping.
But even if life is pretty good right now, the nature of life is such that hardship will come. It will not wait for your welcome. It usually will not knock on your door. And it will sometimes even barge through the doors or your life.
If hardship is a common reality for all of humanity, then we must ask ourselves: where does that hardship lead us? Where has it led us? Where do we want that hardship to lead us?
All too often, I have found myself simply in a chain of negative reactions to hardship. It is difficult not to. Especially when we find ourselves caught off guard.
While hardships may be like cascading rivers, many times our hardships are like steady rivers eroding away our joy and sense of stability. These rivers seem to be have no end in sight. All we can do is live with the constant flow of pain.
I imagine that this is the kind of hardship that Hannah carries with her.
Hannah inhabits a world where children mean so much–especially male children. Hannah’s identity is lumped into producing such a child who can inherit her husband’s property. While infertility is the foundation of Hannah’s hardship, it goes deeper than this; Hannah is forced to deal with its effects in her marriage to Elkanah and her co-wife, Peninnah. Even though Elkanah is said to love Hannah more than Peninnah, Peninnah has done the very thing which Hannah cannot do–she has given Elkanah multiple children (and this includes sons!).
And perhaps what is so devastating about this hardship is that everyone seems to understand this infertility as not a mere biological reality but rather as God’s work. Because of their worldview, Peninnah and Elkanah both treat Hannah as a God-forsaken woman.
Hannah is left unable to bear anything but shame from her husband’s other wife, her culture, and ultimately from her family’s God.
Naturally, Hannah experiences a great deal of anxiety and frustration. This hardship is surely a river that constantly runs for Hannah. And the river rages even more fiercely as she goes with her family on their annual pilgrimage to worship God at the tent of meeting in Shiloh.
On this particular family outing, the family does their usual: worship by offering animals and then eat the meat from the animals that were offered. Elkanah, of course, gives Hannah a double portion motivated both by his love and his pity. Simultaneously, Hannah receives taunts from the mother of Elkanah’s daughters and sons.
Hannah’s own anxiety and frustration mixed with Elkanah’s pity and Peninnah’s taunts create the perfect storm for a depressive episode. The river within Hannah is beginning to rage. She ceases from eating and can only weep. Elkanah seeks to console Hannah. As is often the case when we try to comfort others, Elkanah’s words reveal that he is taking Hannah’s outburst personally. He fails to see that Hannah needs to know that she is the one who is worth than ten sons–that she is enough in spite of her infertility.
And as soon as the meal ends, Hannah takes action. She heads to the tent of meeting so that she can meet with God.
In this meeting, Hannah pours out the depth of her pain and anger. She bargains with this God by making a promise that she would give her son back to God if she could have one. Desperation laces Hannah’s words. She doesn’t want to be a God-forsaken woman any longer. She doesn’t want to receive pity and provocations any longer. She just wants to be whole in every way.
In the midst of Hannah’s outpouring of vulnerability before the holy, she is interrupted by Eli, the priest who misreads her as a drunken woman worthy of rebuke.
We find something significant here in Hannah’s response to this encounter. Hannah’s travail has begun to affect something in her. Though the rivers were raging within her, she has started to develop a different relationship to the river. It is not merely a panicked reaction. She seems to be receiving something from this meeting with God that is not merely pity, provocation, or rebuke.
Her response to Eli shows that she recognizes herself. She is able to own herself–in her pain and in her great faith. She knows that she is not a worthless woman. Though the man of God has misunderstood Hannah’s bold actions, she knows the truth and she is willing to share this truth–unintimidated by Eli’s cultural and spiritual significance.
How does this change come about?
I believe that it occurs when we find the courage to engage the rivers of hardship.
Hannah does just this. She dares to approach this God that she has been told is the one who made her barren. Hannah goes before God without her husband and without any religious mediators. She goes with nothing but herself. And what she finds is that she is one who is blessed by being at the end of her rope for in her hardship. By engaging the reality of her hardship before the holy, she finds a new courage.
Hannah travails through prayer with the one who sees her completely–the only one who knows her completely. And in this travail, Hannah actually prevails. Even before she has an answer to her prayer, she returns to her husband “and her countenance [is] sad no longer” (v. 18b).
At the foundation of Hannah’s travail is prayer.
It is the sphere where we can encounter the holy as a mirror to our own selves. By looking in this mirror along with Hannah we see the same thing that she began to see: our belovedness. The more that we look in this mirror, the more that we find an alternative perspective from the one which we brought to the mirror.
Prayer is not magic. It is not simply saying or reciting the right words given to us by religious authorities or even saying any words at all.
Prayer is a posture of the heart that is willing to sit with the pain, the tensions, the joy, and the travail of life. It is willingness to posture ourselves as one who is connected to all things and to the divine mystery just as Hannah turns her heart towards a holy mystery that she believes will actually care for the plight of a woman when others said God did not really care.
I return to the questions that I posed at the beginning:
What is your hardship?
Where does your hardship lead you?
Quaker teacher, Parker Palmer, writes, “It’s easy to fixate on everything that goes to the ground as time goes by: the disintegration of a relationship, the disappearance of good work well done, the diminishment of a sense of purpose and meaning. But as I’ve come to understand that life ‘composts’ and ‘seeds’ us as autumn does the earth, I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the hardest of times.”
Beloved, maybe the rivers within you are full of beauty and intrigue right now, maybe they are constant rivers bringing pain and suffering, and maybe they are raging with fear, guilt, anxiety, and depression.
However the river is today in your world, we are invited to follow the way of Hannah and carry our whole selves to the holy. For there we will find that we receive. We receive courage, compassion, love, and the truth that we are beloved. And in our belovedness, we are empowered to connect with the ourselves, with the world, and with God in new, transformative, and creative ways.
So church, won’t you join us in prayer as we approach this Advent Season? Not the kind of prayer that is simply dutiful, but the kind of prayer that allows us to encounter the holy in transformation of our worlds. For together, we can know our belovedness and share in Hannah’s contentment knowing that God has not forgotten us. We are remembered by the holy today. Amen.
May you go forth from this place encountering God throughout your days and finding the belovedness of yourself and the world around you.
May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God’s countenance be lifted upon you and may she give you peace today.