A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Girash
November 18, 2018
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
In the first chapter of Samuel, we hear her story:
They lived in the hill country of Ephraim, fifteen or twenty miles out of Shiloh, the place where the people had so carefully placed the ark of the covenant in the tent of meeting. They lived in the hill country, Hannah and her household. It was an age of polygamy and she was one of two wives of Elkanah. Perhaps he loved her more, but with Peninnah he had sons. When they went to Shiloh to make sacrifices, Hannah received double portion of the feast for herself, but each of Peninnah and her children received a portion. And Peninnah rubbed in, year after year. Hannah wept and fasted and would not be consoled. Elkanah offered strange comfort, asking her, aren’t I worth ten sons?
We hear in Hannah’s story, her struggle to conceive and have children, the pain so many experience with infertility. The longing to parent, the love for children, these formed Hannah’s sadness. But there was more: in an age of bare subsistence, and in an age of polygamy, Hannah’s very survival depended on her ability to bear sons. When Elkanah was gone, only her sons could take care of her. Men had multiple wives to increase their number of children; women who could not have children were at risk of destitution. No, Elkanah’s love was not worth ten sons.
But then the text says: “Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up.”
She stood up. The Hebrew is quwm (“koom”), meaning she rose up, she became powerful, she persisted. In the face of infertility, provoked by her rival and on the edge of survival, she stood up. We don’t know what prompted her to move from weeping and fasting to standing up and taking charge. Maybe, as one preacher says, since they were in Shiloh, which was the seat and center of Hebrew worship at the time, maybe an encounter with the spirit of God is what plucked her [up], gave her a fresh read and a new lease, and made her aware of the redemptive power of God and the resilience of the human spirit. Whatever, Hannah stood up. She prayed to the Lord.”
(Rev. Paul Roberts http://day1.org/6372-a_fresh_read/comments)
She stood up, walked to the Lord’s House, and prayed hard. This was a mighty prayer, I think. Hannah laid it on the line with God. Still weeping, she said, God, this is it. I’m going to have a baby. You’re going to help me and I’m going to dedicate him to your service. She was so determined in her prayer that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk. But she was not drunk, she was powerful. She poured her soul out to the Lord.
Modern folks have multiple ways of addressing infertility. We have medical science and we have sperm donors and we have adoption. As an adoptee I know the beauty of creating a family in this way. But Hannah: Hannah, whose infertility put her very life at risk, Hannah had only the power of rising up, and pouring out her soul before the Lord.
And she named her baby Samuel, which means, God hears.
And then she sang. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.”
Her psalm became the psalm of a nation, and later, Mary’s psalm echoed Hannah’s, as Hannah’s echoed Miriam’s before her. “The God to whom Miriam, Hannah and Mary sing praise is faithful to the oppressed...This liberating God transforms impossibility into possibility.”
Church you may wonder why I paired Hannah’s story with Paul’s words from Philippians. They don’t have much in common, at first glance.
Hannah’s song is among the suggested lectionary readings for today. And Paul’s invitation to rejoice in all times seems written for Thanksgiving Sunday. But it was not until I began pondering them together that I saw the parallels between Paul and Hannah’s stories.
Their contexts are both severe struggle and hardship. Paul, you know, was a Roman citizen and a member of the Jewish community who spent years persecuting Christians, until one day he was converted in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. Having never met Jesus, he was nonetheless responsible for founding many of the early churches. Then, the Romans came after Paul.
His letter to the congregation at Philippi was written from prison.
The early church was in a fragile state, still tiny and at risk of persecution from Rome. And Paul was in prison, punished for his efforts to spread a narrative counter to the empire’s.
Prison in the Roman empire was a harsh place.
The early church was undergoing growth in the same moment as persecution under Rome.
And Paul, if not in actual chains, was imprisoned.
I imagine him standing with his face seeking sunlight, pondering his own death - he predicted it at the beginning of this letter - and pondering the future of the Jesus movement.
To one of the congregations he founded, he sent a letter of encouragement, with his own commitment to hopefulness and joy. “What is remarkable is to hear this from an imprisoned man...This means his vision of joy and rejoicing is neither superficial nor short-lived; it is a kind firmly anchored in the lord for the long haul, despite obstacles.” 
He believed that no matter what happened to him, the church would thrive. He believed in God’s presence and support and because of it, he could face whatever came. From his prison cell he told them, “Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Certainly Paul had enough to be anxious about. Anxiety is not always a choice, it is often an unavoidable reality. Prison was a reality for Paul, and a threatened church. Paul offered a choice of what to do in the face of.
In our readings this morning we find: praise and thanksgiving. Rejoicing and exultation. From a marginalized woman in a precarious situation, a song of praise. From a man imprisoned for his faith, a call to rejoice.
You might think them passive, naive, Pollyannas, Paul and Hannah. But they were they were assertive and brave. They had plenty to worry about but they chose to write their narrative from a place of courage and blessing. They chose to praise a liberating God. They chose a theology of abundance.
Church, these are your stories, too. I know you face a moment of difficulty.
You, too, are waiting and wondering what is to come, feeling uncertain about this congregation’s future. Perhaps you are not in Hannah’s place, or Paul’s: wondering about survival. Or, perhaps some of you are.
And yet, like Hannah, you belong to a God of hope.Your strength is in God and there is no Rock like God. And yet, like Paul, you have much to be thankful for. The Lord is near.
You are blessed with resources to offer to God and to our neighbors. You are bold in prayer, and bolder in care and love.
You have the chance, in this season, to tell your story and to write your future.
You may also have come across this paragraph this week:
“I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.” These words are from the newly published memoir of former first lady Michelle Obama. “I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”
It depends on the way you want to tell it, church.
The narrative we build becomes the story of our lives; for the church, the narrative of a congregation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are two possible Eliot Church narratives.
In this very room, a few weeks ago, I heard one:
Where are the people who once were here? This building is too big. Our budget is out of balance. In 2018, people don’t come to church.
But there is a different way of telling it, just as true: Look at the people who have found blessing here. We have a building in exquisite shape. We have enough money in reserve to back ministry we try. Think of the neighbors who don’t even know we are here: how can we bless them?
Here is the question, church.
Do you build a narrative of strife, scarcity and anxiety?
Or do you, moment by deliberate moment, build a narrative of joy, abundance, welcome, and hope?
Kelly Brown Douglas makes a good case for choosing a narrative of hope:
“We must dare to live proleptically, that is, as if, God’s promised future is already. The manner in which we conduct our living should be but a foretaste of God’s time...Even if these ways of acting are not the ways of our world, we must be daring enough to make them the way of our living.” 
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
May it be so. Amen.
 Gail O’Day, “Singing Women’s Song: A Hermeneutic of Liberation”
 Troy Troftgruben, Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9, workingpreacher.org
 Kelly Brown Douglas, https://feminismandreligion.com/2014/01/21/how-is-it-that-god-speaks-by-kelly-brown-douglas/