Sermon preached by Beth Allison, 13 June 2010. Go to the readings...
Two weeks ago, lives were taken in West Cumbria in a manner that was horrific and shocking. It has been difficult for those of us outside of the community to find the words which adequately speak of the situation. News readers have stumbled, conversations between those watching the news pause in shock. But nestled amongst the intercessory prayers on the Church of England website they have placed a prayer written by the diocese of Cumbria. The prayer articulates the sorrow and the pain felt by the people, the priests and the church at what had happened to them. The prayer laments the circumstances. It is brave. It dares utter unto God what evil feels like. It demands an answer. It hopes for healing.
Churches around the Anglican Communion, including our own, voiced that prayer on Cumbria's behalf in our intercessions. It lifted those powerful-but-broken words to God from across the world.
We see in the Cumbrian church the use of a practice we too often forget. Prayers of lament were an integral part of the spiritual life of our predecessors, yet the church of today too often overlooks that it is an authorised and useful part of following God. This is what I want to talk about to you today: lamenting is important and it is a cry honoured by God, because he uses even our darkest moments for his glory.
Hannah, in today's Old Testament reading, cries out to God about her infliction. The story is a well known one many of us have grown up with from Sunday school. Hannah wants a child, God answers her prayer and then she gives him back to become a prophet. But we mustn't sanitize the story. Infertility was one of the biggest social stigmas a woman could receive. We don't think of infertility as a pulpit topic these days. It's seen as a private matter between a couple and their doctor. But this was not the case for Hannah's world. Her inability to have a child would have been seen as precisely that: her inability. She would have been seen as shameful and inferior, unable to properly integrate into the family life of her household, and she would have been left alone in her troubles. We see that she is bullied horribly by Penninah, the other wife who has many children, and she is entirely misunderstood by her insensitive husband. He asks why won't you eat? Why do you weep? Am I not more important? For her husband, Hannah's infertility is of no consequence so long as he is still predominant in her life. His intriguing solution to her social stigma is to give her more food! So when it gets too much, Hannah goes to the temple, deeply distressed, and weeps out her prayer. She's honest, she tells God what is wrong and what she needs.
And God honours that prayer. Eli the priest doesn't get it at first, he is confused and assumes she's drunk, but recognises at last her distress. He tells her to go in peace. God will grant her request.
So what can we learn from Hannah's story?
This story comes as a challenge. Too often we are a sanitised church. People's distress can be hard to deal with and we, like Eli, often assume the worst of people, and want to tell them to pull themselves together. Hannah's story tells us that even the church might not always understand how to deal with lament. The priest seemed to be more of a hindrance than a help. As the church we need to not get in the way or judge prematurely those in situations of grief, but instead we are to assist. As a church we are called to speak of this promise that God changes our circumstances when we cry out to him. We need to acknowledge the power of the words that our liturgy ends with: "go forth in peace" is not a platitude, but a prayer for a change in somebody's countenance, it is a promise that God hears us and that God acts on what has been uttered in his presence. We are called to exemplify this life of lament and love.
As well as discovering that as a church we are to show that prayers of lament are answered, we learn that the ability to lament is a mark of a healthy and strong relationship with God. Hannah is the only character who is shown to have the right relationship with God. All the others are portrayed as getting things wrong: Peninnah is bullying, Elkanah is selfish, and Eli is judgmental and fails to prevent his children from sacrilegious action. Hannah, in contrast, has her intercession referred to four times in the first chapter alone. Only Hannah intercesses in the Book of first Samuel, with one exception: Samuel himself. Her pouring out of her heart marks her out as different from the other characters. Her piety is evident, she refers to herself as God's handmaiden, and then acts this out. It is she alone that gives Samuel his pious name when he is born and she alone who brings him to the temple and gives him to God. Her intercessions and her ability to be vulnerable in front of God is an integral part of her trusting relationship with God. Crying out to God in any circumstance suggests that God is still important, that this relationship can withstand the pain. The psalmists often lament, crying out to God about their afflictions. In one we are told "Trust him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us". These words of comfort show us that pouring out our heart to God is seen as a sign of trust in him. Even Jesus lamented; on the cross he cried out "my God my God why have you forsaken me?" We should therefore not be afraid of complaining to God; the ability to lament is a sign of a strong and intimate relationship with God.
Lastly, Hannah's story tells us that God can use even our worst times of grief for his own goodness if we dedicate them to him. Hannah's prayer only concerned her own life, but by handing over her sorrow and dedicating the answer to her prayers back to God she acts in a way which overturns Israel's social issues. She gives over her grief to God, dedicating to him the thing she wants the most, and God uses that circumstance to provide Israel with the prophet they desperately need. God does not only use our lives when we feel cheerful and spiritually strong, he often achieves far more in our brokenness. It is when we cry out to God, and give our circumstances back to God that he can most clearly change us. It is in those times that the words "go in peace" have their most significance.
Pouring out your heart is something that will be different for each person. We may borrow the words of a psalmist, we may cry in the sanctuary of God, or we may shout aloud at him in a field. It does not matter, God is bigger than our biggest emotions. God is stronger than our worst circumstances. Lamenting is important and it is a cry honoured by God, because he uses even our darkest moments for his glory and gives us his peace.
So I leave you with the words of a hymn I am sure many of you know:
O love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give the back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow,
may richer, fuller be.
O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee,
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine's blaze its day
may brighter fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace a rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life's glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red,
Life that shall endless be.
Old Testament Reading
There was a certain man of Ramathaimzophim of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters; and, although he loved Hannah, he would give Hannah only one portion, because the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her sorely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"
After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, "O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy maidservant, and remember me, and not forget thy maidservant, but wilt give to thy maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head."
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard; therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, "How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you." But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman sorely troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your maidservant as a base woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation." Then Eli answered, "Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him." And she said, "Let your maidservant find favour in your eyes." Then the woman went her way and ate, and her countenance was no longer sad.
They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her.
1 Samuel 1 vv 1–19
The disciples of John told him of all these things.
And John, calling to him two of his disciples, sent them to the Lord, saying, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" And when the men had come to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, 'Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?'" In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offence at me."
When the messengers of John had gone, he began to speak to the crowds concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings' courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.' I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
St Luke 7 vv 18–28