May 13, 2018

Image of God, V: The Birth of Hope

Passage : 1 Samuel 1

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Hannah named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’—1 Samuel 1:20

 

Prayer:  Holy One, we pray for you to settle our hearts and minds so we may hear your truth.  Bless this reading from your holy word and the meditation that we may grow in confidence to live the precious and holy lives you desire.

Let me tell you a story…about a people whose lives were threatened with extinction.  Marauders terrorized them. They were insecure economically, scattered as a people, and unable to remain centered in God.

This story is old. It is the birth of a nation and has been told through the ages to remind people of their only hope when they think all hope is lost.

1 Samuel 1:4-22 (adapted)

There was a certain man whose name was Elkanah. He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.

Year after year, when Elkanah made his sacrifice at Shiloh, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters, and to Hannah, he gave a double portion, because he loved her.

Hannah’s rival used to bully her.

One year at the feast, Hannah wept. Her husband said to her, “why do you weep? Why is your heart sad? You have me.  Isn’t that better than ten sons?”

Hannah left to pray. Now Eli, the priest, was sitting on his seat at the temple, watched and listened. Hannah continued to weep bitterly, was deeply distressed and prayed.  She made this vow: “O Lord, look on the misery of your servant, remember me, and give me a male child, then I will set him before you until the day of his death.  He will be yours his entire lifetime.” 

As she continued praying, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved; so Eli thought she was drunk. Eli asked her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”

Hannah answered, “No, I am deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.

Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel may grant your request.”

 Early in the morning, the entire family rose and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I asked the Lord for him.”

The following year, Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go.  She said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him and he will remain there forever.” 

Such is the story of a woman’s hope.

In the face of bullies and what others say is impossible, it takes more than courage to be true to yourself, it takes hope born from God’s divine image planted deep inside.

Other women have given birth to hope.

Two years ago, at the age of 73½, the Reverend Nancy Jo Kemper decided to run for Congress as a democrat to represent the people of the 6th district in Kentucky. She graduated from divinity school just a few years after I was born.  Why would a grandmother, nearly retired, jump into politics in a state that turns more red with each election?

What began, as an ambiguous idea, became an urgent call. When she announced her plan, she heard stunned silence. The former mayor of Lexington bluntly advised “you will lose” and the soon-to-be former lieutenant governor warned she would be exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually by the race. Kemper was not clinging to a false hope but believed a truth that this was part of her life-long calling to mend what is torn in people’s lives. She needed to try.

Many young adults thanked her for running. They said she had made them feel, for once, that politics could be decent—she did not engage in negative advertising.

In two other districts, novice democrats were trounced by 60 or more points.  She lost by 22 points. The day she returned to church, the sanctuary was filled with democrats and republicans, members and non-members, who gave her a standing ovation for what she did.

Kemper believes our future depends upon our image of God. Many seem to think God is in the protection business, offering a shield against illness or accident or evil until inevitably, evil or illness falls upon them and they are left bereft of any solid ground on which to stand.

Her vision of God is a divine power that is in the relationship business, standing alongside us in good times and in terrible sorrows. “The love that emanates from God and resonates deep within us will enable us to stand on our feet again, to be resurrected, with hope and trust in tomorrow.”[1]

Confident in God’s presence, she mustered the courage to do and be more than what anyone thought possible. Although she lost the race, she released a seed of hope in a community of deep divides that continues to inspire others to imagine a new future.

In the crowd of the Old Testament, rarely are women profiled, so Hannah’s story should immediately startle us about a major turn in Israel’s relationship with God.

In the Ancient Near East, a woman’s value depended upon her ability to bear children, particularly a son. Producing a male to apprentice his father’s work increased the family income and secured a woman’s future. If her husband died, she relied upon her son.

The bullying Hannah endures from her husband’s other, fertile wife stings as a constant reminder of her failure and fragile future. Given what transpires, we can only imagine Hannah also deeply desired to love and nurture a son. Heaping upon this hurt, her husband’s comment, “You have me. Isn’t that better than ten sons,” reeks of insensitivity almost as biting as the other woman’s bullying.

When Hannah flees their taunts to pray in the temple, she has fallen to her most vulnerable point, in loneliness and despair to “pour out her soul” before God. From bitter anguish, her prayer turns to promise her womb, her life, and offspring to be in service to God’s plan.  This is where the mighty, Davidic monarchy is born, in complete surrender to God.[2]

Hannah’s story is of giving birth to a future no one could anticipate.

Hannah named her son “Samuel,” meaning “I asked of the Lord,” and when he was weaned, she placed his future in God’s service.

I tell this story not as a prescription to women who suffer from infertility to just pray and hope. I realize these stories of miraculous conceptions replete in the scripture sting for those who have prayed to be mothers. Scripture’s stories of a new future begin with birth to remind us of God’s presence in mortal life, not just an individual conception.

Hannah’s story is a grand metaphor for Israel’s rise from fragmented, longsuffering tribes, bullied by others, to become a mighty nation. Once Israel placed its future in God, it became what God created it to be.

Hannah’s story is also our story. We know all too well that to realize our dreams requires humility, to call upon gifts others doubt we possess. And when our greatest dreams are realized, they too are not ours to own, but belong to the future in God’s care.

As children are graduating from AJN Preschool, Sears, New Trier, and college, they are given into a future.

Motherhood demands vulnerability to surrender your body, your very life, to God’s creative power to bring about new life. Motherhood demands that this new life you bear, however much is always loved, is released into a future you don’t control.

Believing in the future, waiting for a long-held dream to germinate, for some, is pure folly.  Albert Camus wrote, “think clearly and do not hope, because hopes are the playing field of political and economic deceivers, who sell illusions and destroy the real life.” [3]

Contrasted with this cynicism are the stories of Hannah, and all the others in our history, including the Reverend Kemper, who understand hope is a divine power for life.

Hope is not some kind of delusional optimism when life swamps us with realities we don’t want to face. People will die and leave us.  Businesses crumble.  Colleges reject promising scholars. Through it all, hope remains a choice.

We decide to believe God is with us, walking with us to a future only God knows.

The same creator who threw stars in the sky, holds each heavenly body in its orbit by relationships with one another, is the same God who planted within us a divine seed and remains in relationship with us to bring about new life.

This same creator chose to enter our lives, born of a woman. Jesus walked the hard road, endured the savage death and rose to proclaim, “God is a God of hope.”

In anticipation of this year’s Boston Marathon, the Boston Globe published an article about Mary Shertenleib. Five years ago, a diagnosis with leukemia kept her inside. Infection and fatigue were too risky at that juncture of her treatment to cheer the runners, so she missed a family tradition.

At 3 p.m., that marathon day, her building shook with such a force she thought it was falling. Gathering her two sons, Shertenlieb and her husband raced downstairs. When they reached the ground floor, they found the glass door to the building blown out—the lobby filled with people injured from the bomb blast that killed three and injured hundreds.

No one was allowed to return to the building, so she continued her treatment and healing in a hotel. Friends gave them clothes, brought toys to keep their children entertained, and a nurse where she was a patient, brought her medicine when the hospital was in lock down.[4]

Fast forward five years to 2018, Mary is a three-time cancer survivor; having survived two relapses, endured rounds of chemotherapy, and finally a bone marrow transplant. While training to run this year, she raised over $35,000 for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she had received treatment.

Before the race began, her shoes were soaked from the driving rain. Along the route, Shertenleib checked into medical tents, but in the sub-40-degree weather, with blue lips and the potential for hypothermia, she took shelter in a Dunkin Donuts at mile 15.5. After five hours of running, she decided to stop.

Her husband took her home for hot shower, dinner, and rest. But her desire remained strong.  At 8 p.m. they returned to that Dunkin Donuts to pick up where they left off. Sharing their run on social media, friends gathered to cheer them on, showing up along the race route.

She was so exhausted; she had to walk. But she told herself, “No matter what, I’m running down Boylston.” And after midnight, as they turned the corner onto Boylston, she could hear screaming and cheering from her friends, race volunteers, and police officers who had cleared the way for her to run across the finish line.[5]

Mary Shertenlieb’s victory is of struggle transformed by hope. And her story is of an entire community infused with this hope.

On a day when we honor those who gave birth to us, loved us into being, is the day we say thank you to God who guided their dreams into reality.

Today is also a day to wonder how are you living into their hopes? Your dreams and your mom’s hopes may be one in the same or not. Hannah never imaged her son would launch an empire. Samuel only followed God’s call.

What unique seed of God exists in you that needs to shine?  What are your hopes? In the face of skeptics or bullies, can Hannah’s story inspire you to turn to the one who made you and become a hope that has never before existed?  May it be so.

 

[1] Nancy Jo Kemper, “The Future Depends on Our Image of God,” Reflections:  Yale Divinity School, A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Thinking 105, no. 1, (Spring 2018), 29–32.
[2] Marcia Mount Shoop “Theological Perspective, 1 Samuel 1:4–20, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol 4, Ed David Barlette and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster JohnKnox, 2009), 290–294.
[3] Jurgen Moltmann, “Hope,” New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology Ed Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price (Nashville:  Abington Press, 2003), 249.
[4] Dianlynn Dwyer, “Why Mary Shertenlieb is Running the 2018 Boston Marathon,” The Boston Globe, April 11, 2018, https://www.boston.com/sports/boston-marathon/2018/04/11/why-mary-shertenlieb-is-running-the-2018-boston-marathon
[5] Shelley English, “Five Lessons From the First and Last Women at the 2018 Boston Marathon,” Life Up and Running, April 24, 2018, http://www.lifeupandrunning.com/2018/04/24/1196/