November 18, 2012

1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-25

There are people like Hannah among us today, and in our families and communities… not just women and couples who struggle with infertility, but men and women and young people who experience the kind of anguish and despair that Hannah shows to us in her story. The particular struggles are myriad… grief, illness, loneliness, depression, problems at work, problems in family relationships, conflict between friends, or a general lack of meaning and purpose in life or in the sense of being valued and loved.

What a sad way to start a sermon! But it’s true, isn’t it? Most of us can relate to Hannah’s outburst in the place of worship because we have felt like that at times too. Some of us will have kept the public weeping to a minimum, but we can understand how she got to that point. She just couldn’t take any more of the other wife’s taunts. She just couldn’t handle any more of her husband’s sympathy. She just couldn’t hold on anymore to all the anger and sadness and resentment that she had been carrying for so long. And she let go of it by talking to God about it.

Now, it wasn’t a nice little prayer that she offered up to God with a measured amount of praise and thanks and a polite request for some help in the baby-making department. It wasn’t a carefully prepared request like the prayers we often offer together in our public worship. But Hannah simply poured out her heart to God.

At our choir practice on Thursday evening, someone commented that even though we aren’t doing a regular psalm reading today, two of the four hymns we’re singing this morning are psalms. When I thought about that I realized that the reason is likely because the psalm writers did what Hannah was doing in the temple that day. They poured out their hearts to God in prayer. They openly and honestly expressed lament, and complaint, and anger to God. And when they honestly felt it, they poured out their praise and thanks and joy to God as well.

Reading and singing the psalms, especially in contemporary translation, can be a way for us to find words to express the prayers that we want to offer to God in the variety of circumstances of our lives. In times of despair and doubt, we join in the prayer of Psalm 22 asking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And as we place ourselves once again into God’s care, we pray with the author of Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.” And when there is relief from suffering, when encouragement and hope come, we might express our prayers with the words of Psalm 30: “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favour is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

The psalms may help us in expressing our feelings and thoughts to God, but they are not a substitute for our very own words and tears poured out to the God who is longing to be in relationship with each one of us.

Hannah was so distressed by her situation that as she poured out her heart to God she wept bitterly. We read that her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. And observing her behaviour, the temple priest, Eli, assumed that she was drunk. Maybe she was swaying or rocking as she prayed. Maybe she was audibly crying or wailing, while the words of her prayers were heard only by God.

One of the most amazing things about this story, I think, is that Hannah knew where to go. She went to the place of worship and poured out her heart to God. I know that some of the people in our church do the same thing when faced with difficult struggles in their lives. Some will pray or ask the church to pray for them. Some will call the minister. Some will talk to an elder or to Laura, our Pastoral Care Nurse. Some will phone a Christian friend, whether someone who attends our church or another.

But other times, I know, there is a hesitancy to share the deep struggles of our lives. How difficult it can be for many people to return to the worshipping community after the death of a loved one. The fear of breaking down in public may hold some back, or even the sense that when we’re at church we should be friendly and happy and together.

I can’t very well do it when I’m the worship leader and preacher, but when I have the opportunity to worship in other churches I have often found myself weeping as I prayed and sang and worshipped along with the Christian community. And perhaps I have been too caught up in my own grief, or my own sorrow, or my own focus on clinging to God for strength and encouragement and hope… but I’ve never noticed anyone giving me funny looks when I’m crying. And no one’s ever asked me if I’m crazy, or drunk, or anything else.

But that’s the fear, isn’t it? What will other people think? And what will they say? Perhaps especially for men, who are typically less comfortable with articulating and sharing their feelings, this kind of vulnerability in the community can be very difficult.

When I read Hannah’s story earlier this week, I noticed at first that she went home feeling better. The story reports that “she went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” Regardless of what the outcome of her prayer might be, whether God granted her a son or not, in that moment she somehow felt a little better.

And because the change in her countenance seemed to occur just after her interaction with Eli, I assumed that his words were a source of encouragement to her. I conveniently forgot about the first thing he said to her. Remember? “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” One of the commentaries I read later referred to Eli as “the inept priest.” He says just about the worst thing that anyone could say to someone who is upset and crying in church. So if Hannah feels better later, it can’t very well be because of the compassionate pastoral care that she received. It’s got to be in spite of it.

The only other thing that Eli says to her is a perfunctory blessing and word of encouragement: “Go in peace,” he says, and may “the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” It’s hard to believe that I interpreted that as being helpful on my first read through. It really wasn’t much, and he was still kind of hurrying her out of the worship space, perhaps hoping to get rid of this woman who was making a bit of a scene.

And unfortunately, a lot of people in our church and in other churches as well, in the midst of their grief or illness or depression or loss, have encountered ministers and elders and fellow church members that have demonstrated that same kind of ineptitude. A caregiver returns to church after the loved one she cared for over so many years has died, and someone says, “Well, at least you’ll have more time for yourself now.” A person with a chronic illness finds the energy one Sunday to attend worship, and someone asks, “Where have you been? Are you becoming a Christmas and Easter Christian?” Someone else struggles with depression every day, but when he comes to church people are always telling him to smile more.

Eli may serve as a reminder to us that it’s really easy to make assumptions about other people and to say things that may be hurtful. With practice and care, we can do better for each other than Eli did. We can take time to listen and try to understand each other’s struggles. We can make our church into a safe place where we can all pour out our hearts to God without being judged or criticized. And Eli also reminds us that even when we do get things wrong, God may well be working in people’s lives, providing hope and encouragement, in spite of our ineptitude.

When the first Christians were making the transition from the Jewish Faith to the new Christian Faith that grew out from it, one of the things that they had to do was to figure out what the Christian community would do when they came together. One of the key aspects of their Jewish practice had been the making of offerings and sacrifices at the temple, especially during the great pilgrimage festivals.

But with their new faith in Christ came the end of the need to make continual sacrifices to God. As the reading from Hebrews this morning explains, “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… and by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”

The early church did not continue to make sacrifices to God in the temple because they believed that their right relationship with God did not depend on making sacrifices. In Christ, their sins had been forgiven (as have ours) so there was and is no longer any offering for sin.

But the early Christians did continue to meet together. They met on Sunday, the day that Jesus rose from the dead, and they called it the Lord’s Day. They met together for prayer, praise, teaching, fellowship, and the breaking of bread. They met together to support and encourage one another in the faith.

Very much like we do today, the early Christians faced many struggles in life. They struggled with their personal and individual losses and sorrows and challenges, and they struggled together as a community that was experiencing persecution and often danger.

Things were so bad at times, that they wondered about the end of the world and prayed for the coming of the Kingdom of God. And the author of Hebrews encouraged them: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

As we draw close to the Season of Advent, we will remember the coming of Christ Jesus into our world and into our lives, and we will pray for his Kingdom to come in its fullness. We will pray for the day when there will be no more sorrow or crying, when there will be no more illness or death, when there will be no more conflict in families or Christian communities, when there will be no more war or oppression or violence in our world.

As we wait with eagerness and hope for that great and glorious day, let us learn day by day to care for, and pray for, and encourage one another, that all might experience the love and compassion of God in this place until God’s Kingdom comes. Amen.