The Listening Heart
A Meditation on 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20 and 2 Samuel 2: 1 – 10
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop November 18, 2018 Grace Presbyterian Church
What do you long for? We all long for something. Maybe it’s as simple as an extra hour of sleep. Or some chocolate. But it could be something much deeper: freedom from pain, release from addiction, to have a love one restored to you, to find your way out from under the weight of grief or fear. Maybe your mind runs to big picture concepts like “world peace” or, as one friend responded when I posted this question on Facebook, “sanity and dignity in the White House.”
On a slightly smaller scale, your thoughts may have turned to the needs of someone else, which is the natural path of a gracious heart. That is good. Still, I invite you to challenge yourself to ask the vulnerable question: what it is I long for in this life. Under your very own roof, in the sanctuary of your heart, what is your longing? My niece responded to my Facebook question in a way that bridges the personal and the collective: “I long for peace…peaceful relationships, peaceful and empathetic discourse, peaceful acceptance of each other.”
It sounds like a selfish question to encourage you to explore your personal longing in church, and some of you may find it difficult for that reason. So, if not in this moment, then in another, quieter moment, ask yourself the question: what am I hoping for? What am I longing for? If you truly can’t answer that question, then take yourself back to a time when you knew that ache. If you aren’t experiencing it now, you have known it. That’s the emotion I am asking you to tap into to as we explore Hannah’s story. This story is not only for women…
Hannah ached. She suffered. A barren woman was not only unable to fulfil her responsibility to society, she was considered cursed by God. Despite this conventional wisdom, her husband, Elkanah, loved her and provided for her. She was fortunate in this way, but Elkanah could only do so much to console her. We are given a painful snapshot of her family life. Penninah, Elkanah’s fertile wife, by whom he has both sons and daughters, teases and taunts Hannah. Imagine poor Hannah, having to share a tent with this callous woman. It is not enough for Penninah to have all that she could need in life, she must also humiliate her sister wife. Hannah is reminded of her own failure every day as she interacts with Penninah’s children.
And frankly, Elkanah could use some better communication skills. Can’t you just see Hannah & Elkanah in marriage counseling?
Therapist: So what would you like to discuss today?
Elkanah: Sometimes I just don’t understand her. Every year we plan this wonderful trip to Shiloh to bring our sacrifices to God. I am obligated to give Penninah and her children a portion of the sacrifice, but I give a portion to Hannah, too! Every year it’s the same thing…she ends up in tears, won’t eat, and Penninah complains about how Hannah is ruining it for everyone!
Hannah: Why don’t you tell the therapist what you said to me when I was crying!
Elkanah: I was just trying to be funny…I said, “Come on, Hannah honey, don’t cry! You’ve got me and you know I’m worth 10 sons!”
At which point, Hannah once again bursts in to tears, and the therapist engages Hannah & Elkanah in a “reflective listening” exercise. By the end of their 50 minutes, Elkanah is saying things like, “Do I hear you saying that you love my sense of humor, but there are times when it isn’t appropriate?” “Are you saying that sometimes you just need me to listen and not try to fix everything?” Chalk one up for couples’ therapy.
Poor Hannah…she should have brought the therapist with her to the Temple. Maybe her therapist and the priest, Eli, could have had a conversation about checking your assumptions at the door. Eli must have known Hannah’s story; she came to this place every year with her family. A story such as theirs (told as “poor Elkanah, saddled with an infertile wife”) would not have been a secret. Eli had to know, but instead of welcoming her with compassion, he sat in the doorway and judged her. The woman is distraught. She is crying and praying. She can’t get the words out (the tradition being to pray aloud), so she appears to be talking to herself. Eli, seeing this, connects the dots: crying woman, unable to say the prayers, creating an awkward situation for everyone. She must be drunk! That’s the only possibility. That he can see.
As with Elkanah, Hannah must once again try to explain herself, explain her longing. Eli is able to set aside the judgements he made based on Hannah’s appearance. He doesn’t smell wine on her breath, he only smells sorrow and longing. He is able to allow for a different interpretation of her actions. He then adds his prayer to hers and extends a blessing of God’s peace.
When someone truly hears us, when someone truly listens to the honesty of our lives, we do feel lighter. Hannah, the Bible tells us, was no longer sad after her conversation with Eli. She was able to eat. Her sorrow had been shared, and though she did not leave with a promise from Eli, she left with hope. She had a witness to her life. Notice what she did not do: she did not complain about Penninah’s cruelty to God or to Eli, although she could have. I would have. She didn’t ask Eli to promise her a son. She spoke from her heart, and she left all of her tears in God’s hands.
As we heard in our text, Elkanah and Hannah are blessed with a son, and Hannah dedicates him to God. Fast forward to Hannah’s song, from 2 Samuel 2: 1 – 10. It’s not the song she sings after her son, Samuel is born. It is the song she sings after she has brought her only son to the Temple so that he might live and serve in God’s house. What a woman. After years of waiting, her prayers are answered, and what does she do? She gives the answer to her prayers, her son Samuel, back to God. (She doesn’t even wait until he is a teenager, when many parents would be happy for someone else to raise their kids!)
And she sings a song, but it is not a self-centered song! We cannot over emphasize what an outcast she would have been as a motherless wife. Samuel’s birth has restored her to society and removed any notion of a curse upon her life. Having experienced justice, she celebrates the God of justice for all people. She sings:
The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power!
Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread,
but the ones who were starving are now fat from food!
The woman who was barren has birthed seven children,
but the mother with many sons has lost them all!
The Lord! God brings death, gives life,
takes down to the grave, and raises up!
The Lord! God makes poor, gives wealth,
brings low, but also lifts up high!
God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile.
God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor! (2 Samuel 2: 4 – 8)
Though we might have like to edit out some of the angry references, we can hear in her song this truth: God is on the side of the oppressed. The last will be first and the first will be last. The outcast will be restored. Hannah’s son, Samuel will anoint a king for Israel, a very unlikely choice. A youngest son. David. David’s lineage will eventually lead to a manger in Bethlehem, and another unlikely mother, Mary. In a few weeks, when we come to Mary’s song, we will also hear the voice of one who champions a God who is the protector, the rescuer, the hope of the hopeless. She will sing of one who humbles the proud and fills the hungry with good things. Songs of power.
But Hannah’s truth is this: before she could sing, she wept. An ugly cry. Tears can be embarrassing, humbling, messy…but tears also hold wondrous possibilities.
Author and theologian Frederick Buechner writes this about tears:
YOU NEVER KNOW what may cause tears. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. ..a horse cantering across a meadow, the high-school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.
They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next. -Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words
As we stand here on the edge of the Advent season, I hope you will ask yourself these questions: what is it I am longing for? How does my longing connect me to the longings of others? In the tears of my longing, do I hear God speaking to me of where I have been and where I am to go?
Thanks be to God, the holder of our tears, the receiver of our prayers, the witness of our lives. Amen.