Homily: Yr B Proper 33, Nov 15 2015, St. Albans
Readings: 1 Sam 1.4.20; 1 Sam 2:1b-10; Heb 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8
“You are worthless.” I hope you’ve never been told that. But my fear is that many of us either directly, or perhaps more subtly, have been told, more than once, in a whole variety of ways, that we are worthless. And when someone is given that message again and again, it eats away at them. When our worth is questioned repeatedly by the world around us, we can’t help but start to question it ourselves.
Hannah has been told that she is worthless. Everyone tells her she is worthless. Her whole society, her whole culture tells her that a woman who does not bear children is incomplete. Useless. Cursed by God. Worthless.
And that eats away at Hannah. Being told you’re worthless causes huge psychological and spiritual damage. It is not a damage that can be healed by positive thinking or a stiff upper lip. It is a persistent, unsettled ache. Listen to the words used to describe Hannah in today’s Old Testament reading, listen to the words she uses to describe herself. She weeps, bitterly. She will not eat. She is deeply distressed, deeply troubled, in misery, with great anxiety. She pleads with those around her, “Don’t regard me as worthless.”
Not only does Hannah feel worthless, not only does she suffer from anxiety and depression as a result, but she is both misunderstood and abused by those who are closest to her. Her husband Elkanah is trying, I suppose, to help, but he is at best a clumsy oaf who just doesn’t get it. “Why are you sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Well, no actually it’s not about you, Elkanah. Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah, the one he was allowed to marry because Hannah wasn’t able to do what a wife should do, she sees Hannah as a rival and torments her with her worthlessness. And even the priest Eli, who God knows should do better, when he sees Hannah praying at the temple, he accuses her of being drunk. There is only one it seems, who actually sees Hannah for who she is.
God sees Hannah, the one the world says is worthless, praying at the temple. And God says, “I choose you.”
In our own day, we no longer see someone who is infertile as cursed by God. It is still a serious problem and often a source of great sadness, but hopefully, not a cause for feelings or accusations of worthlessness. But we still struggle with questions of worth in our own time. Social stigma around mental illness and unemployment come to mind. Self-esteem issues that relate to body image among teenagers. And to stay with today’s theme of women’s stories, think about women at home with children. What are the messages that they get from us, from our culture?
“Why don’t you put your children in daycare so that you can get a job?”
“Do you go back to bed when your kids go off to school in the morning?”
These daily reminders of the loss of income, of prestige, of independence that go with staying at home do their part in chipping away at the sense of worth of those people, mostly women and some men, who stay at home with their kids. And too often, even those closest to them misunderstand, and like Hannah’s clumsy oaf of a husband Elkanah, say completely the wrong thing. I know, I’ve been that clumsy oaf of a husband on too many occasions.
When we consider the patriarchal world of the Old Testament, it’s pretty amazing that we find the story of Hannah right at the beginning of the book of Samuel. The book of Samuel is the story of the rise of Israel, the story of a tribe which goes from being a fragile, corrupt, disorganized people threatened on all sides to a strong nation under the great king David. And that story begins with Hannah. God chooses Hannah to begin the story of the rise of Israel and the beginning of the Davidic line, a story which in turn gives rise, after many twists and turns along the way, to the birth of Jesus, and therefore to our story as well.
Despite her struggles with self-worth, despite her struggles with mental illness, Hannah turns to God. In the depth of her distress, Hannah chooses not to be resentful towards Elkanah for his misunderstanding, nor to strike out angrily at her rival Peninnah. She didn’t do a Sarah, Abraham’s barren wife who in the book of Genesis insisted that Abraham send his child-bearing wife Hagar into exile. Instead, Hannah rose and presented herself to the Lord. She was deeply distressed and she wept bitterly but she took her concerns to God, in prayer, at the temple. And God uses Eli, the insensitive priest, to assure Hannah that her prayer has been heard. Knowing that God has heard her, Hannah’s sense of worth is restored, and her countenance is sad no longer.
And you know, this is really the heart of the gospel isn’t it? That no matter our fears and our weaknesses, no matter what the world around us says about our sense of worth, no matter what we believe about our own worthiness, when we turn to God, God sees and God hears and God says to us, you are valuable and beautiful and wonderful in my eyes. I want you as my child and I choose you. And that changes everything.
It certainly did for Hannah. We get to see that great transformation play out in her story. She is sad no longer. God chooses her to bear a son. Hannah receives her son as a gift from God, and she in turn, astonishingly, gives her son Samuel back to God a few years later, bringing him to live with Eli at the temple. The boy Samuel will grow up to be the key figure in the rise of Israel, the last of the judges of Israel, one of the greatest of Israel’s prophets and the one who anoints David as king.
And Hannah’s story doesn’t end with the birth of her son, the prophet. She too becomes a prophet, and her prophetic song is the one we used as our psalm today. It is a song of joy and of strength, the song of a changed woman, a song that attests to God as the one who brings transformation to our lives and to our world, who makes the feeble strong, who feeds those who are hungry, who raises the poor from the dust and who breaks the bows of the mighty. We will hear another song much like it in a few weeks when we enter the season of Advent and hear once more the song of Mary.
Our God is a God who does remarkable things, who chooses those who are weak and worthless in the eyes of the world to begin new stories, stories of hope, stories of change, stories of joy, stories of redemption. If this world is ever getting you down, and it will sometimes, and if people ever say or do things that make you question your own worth, and they will sometimes, and if you’re ever troubled by sadness and anxiety, if you ever feel misunderstood, remember the story of Hannah.
Hannah turned to God in her distress, and God said “I choose you.”
And with those words, the new story begins.