Pain, Prayer and Power

Preacher: Alice Martin-Adkins

Scripture: I Samuel 1: 4-20 & Mark 13:1-8

I selected this 1 Samuel text from the lectionary for today for several reasons. One reason it is the story about a woman… about a woman’s struggles. It is not often that the lectionary takes us to stories about women.  Yet this is not just a story for women, but one that has wider implications for our human situation and our relationship to God.

     This is a story surrounded in prayer… and I appreciate that. The passage we heard this morning is Hannah’s prayer of petition and pleading for a child, but as you continue into chapter 2 you find a revolutionary prayer of thanksgiving for God’s response, also attributed to Hannah.  A very similar prayer is found in the Gospel of Luke. That is Mary’s song of praise as she tells her cousin Elizabeth about her pregnancy.  Both these prayers proclaim a vision of God turning the world upside down!

     Also, I found this story significant because it is more than just a story about a woman praying, bargaining with God… and getting what she asks for!  Too many of us have experienced not getting what we ask for in prayer, so I want to explore what does happen through prayer…how are pain, prayer and power connected?

     A quote attributed to Karl Barth caught my attention while reading in preparation for this message.  Barth said: “to clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world”.   That sounds like a description of what is happening as Hannah prays.

     Year after year, Hannah goes to worship in Shiloh with her family and there is disorder. The obvious and deeply painful disorder is that she has no children. She is barren in a society that judges her for that inability to have children.  Women found a sense of security for the future based on their ability to produce children…and the more the better, since the mortality rate usually worked against survival.  But could Hannah’s struggle against barrenness be symbolic of a deeper and more insidious barrenness within the greater society of her time?  For example:

     Here is but a brief allusion to the priests Hophni and Phinehas, sons of the aged priest Eli. Later, I Samuel describes the greed and corruption of these religious leaders. There must have been a barren, God forsakenness among those who turned to these priests for spiritual and religious guidance.

     There is also a rivalry between Elkanah’s two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. In times of scarce resources, the extended family of multiple wives and children was an important system for economic security and survival.  While Peninnah finds security because she has borne children, there is an insecurity in knowing Elkanah loves Hannah more and provides Hannah with extra resources.  Yet Hannah is unable to trust that love and support from Elkanah because she believes she is not the productive woman that society has told her she “should” be.  No one is secure, happy or fulfilled in this shaming, competitive, divisive situation.  Since Peninnah taunts Hannah every time they go to Shiloh for worship, there may even be the connotation that Hannah’s prayers are useless, that she has been rejected by God.  There is the threat of barren, God forsakenness in the divisions of this family and community. 

     Perhaps I am reading more between the lines than is here, but the names that are used to describe God caught my attention.  According to the commentaries, this is the first time that God is described as “Lord of Hosts” or as “The Message” translates… “God of the Angel Armies”. This is a battle image, a concept of God who leads the people in war and conquers. No doubt the battle God is a significant image for the nation building that is central to the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.  I also wonder if there is more to Elkanah’s question about him being worth more than 10 sons, since it took 10 men to lead the cohorts that made up a military legion.  And again the “rivalry” between wives, another battle image perhaps?  Where this leads me is to the depletion and God forsakenness that is the experience of nations involved in years of warfare.  It reminds me of the empty, barrenness that plagues any civil society when there is rivalry, shaming and taunting rather than listening, encouraging and uplifting each other.

     Though a very personal, pleading petition to God, Hannah’s prayer might well be interpreted as the beginning of rising up against the social and religious disorder found in these ancient stories of faith. 

     Need I even say that this story echoes some of the barrenness being felt in our lives, communities and nations now?  This Covid era has brought the disorder of our religious, family, community and national life into the forefront.  Where is there hope in our prayers and answers to our pleadings?

   Turn now to the Mark 13 lectionary passage for today.  At first it too looks rather bleak and barren.  Jesus describes crumbling edifices, earthquakes, fires, famines, disillusioned citizens and nations rising up against nations, wars and rumors of wars… sound familiar? Then Jesus says… “these are but the beginning of the birth pangs… this is the beginning of the rising up against the disorder!

     Hannah in her shame, sorrow and pleading was experiencing some of those birth pangs before she became pregnant.  How often when struggling with some fear, major decision or need for change in our lives does it feel like birthing pains?  Letting go, breathing and living through the change is where the joy begins to be known.  That was Hannah’s experience as she poured out her heart, trusted she was heard (at least by Eli who finally listened). She left that sanctuary with a changed attitude… “in radiance” as one translation said.

     This time Eli says, “may the God of Israel give you what you have asked of God”.  Note the change in his name for God.  It is not the omnipotent, God of Battle that has heard this woman’s prayers – but the God of Israel… the God of the people.  I find this change in the name and image of God significant in how we might approach prayer also.

     Who is the God to whom we pour out our prayers?  Is it one we think is “on our side” and against our rivals… or one who is just and merciful?

    Is our image for God one who fights, conquers and destroys, or one who brings redemption and new life out of death and destruction?

     Is God one who has forgotten and forsaken us, or the one who has covenanted to be with us always?

     Instead of encountering an all-powerful, warrior God, Hannah leaves that sanctuary empowered to trust a life-giving God, so that she might help bring about some order in a barren, disordered world.  Her first born son, Samuel, becomes a prophet speaking out against the dangers and disorder of empire.  

     Who are our Hannahs?  I hear her prayer on the hearts of the mothers of black and brown children.  Too many are losing their children to gun violence, or unjust and bias policing. As families struggling to survive, these women (and fathers too) are supporting each other, they are sharing their resources, they are praying and rising up to say “Black Lives Matter… something needs to change this system of disorder and barrenness.  

     Perhaps Hannah’s prayer and faith is being echoed through the children and youth who no longer settle for inaction against the problems caused by climate change and disruption.  They are raising their voices and putting their lives on the line against systems of disorder and barrenness too.   

    Wherever there is pain, taunting, destruction, conflict, and barrenness we are once again experiencing the birth pangs.  May we clasp our hands in prayer, be empowered… join in the uprising against the disorder, barrenness and God forsakenness… and bring forth new life. 

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