Hannah is…as they say…a hot mess. She and her family are in town for a religious celebration…there is feasting and obviously a lot of drinking…that’s why the priest, Eli, simply assumes Hannah is drunk. But Hannah isn’t drunk. Far from it…she hasn’t been able to join in the celebration at all. She can’t …she can’t eat…she can’t celebrate….because her heart is aching. Using just about every Hebrew word to describe her despair…our translation says she was deeply distressed, weeping bitterly…she was in misery…and pouring out her anxiety and vexation before the Lord. Hannah doesn’t care what anyone thinks…she believes that God’s invitation is to “come as you are”…and she simply lays bare the hot mess she is…all the emotional pain and anger she has over her inability to conceive a child…before the Lord.
I don’t know if any of you have struggled with infertility…but it is excruciatingly hard. Wanting a child so badly…and unable to have one…never belittle that pain or the emotional turmoil it brings. Hannah knows that pain. The pain of barrenness.
But I think others can relate to that pain, can’t they? It may be different…but the waiting…the questions …are similar. “Why, Lord?”…and “How long, O Lord?’
Parents waiting for adoptions to come through. Parents waiting for an autistic child to say “I love you.” Exhausted parents of the severely disabled. Heartbroken parents of the addicted. Elderly folks isolated and lonely at home or in care centers, longing for human contact, especially during this pandemic. People in the midst of depression. People who cannot find employment. Folks who experience racism and injustice and bigotry day after day after day. “Why, Lord?” “ How long, O Lord?” All of these folks have their own hot mess…their own barrenness and anger and pain.
Some of us have been in that place…some of us might be there right now…but ALL of us know people for whom this story is all too real. And this morning, with Hannah, we all come before God. No pretense. Come as you are. You don’t have to feel like celebrating today….today, we get to acknowledge the heartbreaking stories that make it hard to breathe sometimes. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks…we aren’t drunk. We’re desperate. Desperate for a different future. And we get to bring it all to God…without the right words or the right theology or the right anything. That’s what Hannah does. And she prays and weeps and looks so pathetic that the priest, Eli, thinks she’s drunk. But then something beautiful happens.
Because somehow, Eli gets past his initial judgmentalism …and listens to her. Eli sees Hannah…hears her story….believes her….and prays with her that God will grant her deepest prayer. And she leaves with a lighter heart. Her countenance was sad no more. Hannah is heard. Hannah is seen. And she leaves able to rejoin the others…to eat and drink.
This, for me, is the more important heart of the story. I know God does answer Hannah’s prayer..and that’s awesome, of course….but we also know a lot of folks who don’t have those deepest prayers of their heart answered. So our hope can’t just be that we get what we pray for, if so….because if so, then Hannah’s story isn’t going to mean much for the rest of us who are still waiting in a barren place. But for me, I find that hope in Eli…who brings God’s grace to Hannah in the midst of her pain…by hearing her story and joining in her prayer. It is after Eli, imperfect as he is, acknowledges her misery…that Hannah is able to breathe again…to eat and drink…to live again. Being seen and heard made the difference. Knowing you are not alone…knowing that others hold you in prayer…knowing that others care …makes a difference.
Up to this point, Hannah’s pain has been mocked by Elkhanah’s other wife. And Elkanah himself couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t content….he would say to her ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’
According to them, she was supposed to buck up…to look on the bright side….get over it….deal. But Eli doesn’t do that. Eli doesn’t belittle her pain…and doesn’t dismiss it as unjustified. He prays with her…that God will hear her misery and bring her a child.
All too often, people in pain are not heard. People suffering from depression get lectures on how good their life is. Aren’t I enough?…a spouse asks. People facing bigotry get mocked and called snowflakes in their pain. But Eli bears witness to God who hears God’s children in their pain…God who loves. God who is with us. Imperfect, judgmental Eli….is God’s grace bearer to Hannah. And like him, we are often imperfect grace bearers as well.
Imperfect grace bearers…offering a glimpse of God who is greater…God who is vast…God who holds all the times of our lives in God’s heart. And that is the ultimate hope. We trust God… with our pain, with our grief, with the injustice and evil that surrounds us. We trust God…who, as Hannah sings, “kills and brings to tlife, brings down to sheol and raises up…who 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.”
We trust God for justice we cannot yet see embodied in the world. We trust God for a future we cannot envision…where grief and suffering are no more. We trust God, who created the world…who created us…who created all we love…to hold us in that love eternally. Hannah sings, “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.” We can trust God…even when we have nothing else to hold on to.
In a few short years, Hannah’s trust will be evident when she leaves her little boy, Samuel, in the care of Eli, at the temple. She trusts that God will care for Samuel, when she cannot. Man…how many of us have had to do that….to trust God to care for our children when we could not? How many of us have come to the end of what we could do for our children…or for another loved one…and then had to let go…and trust that God was with them when we could not be. Too many mothers…too many parents know that grief and struggle. Trusting God who set the pillars of the earth…trusting God who holds us in life and in death….trusting God who loves our children more than we do.
And this, my friends, is Hannah’s story. Hannah who weeps with the barren and draws strength from the pillars of the earth…from God who holds the pillars of the earth. And who receives a moment of grace from Eli along the way. And this is also our story. This is what it looks like to be a people of faith. We weep with the barren and draw strength from God who is great….and along the way, we offer one another moments of grace. Ordinary people. Ordinary lives. Ordinary grace. Bearing witness to God’s extraordinary love. Yes…this is our story. Even when we, too, are a hot mess. Amen