When the odds are against us (06/11/17)

Read 1 Samuel 1:4-20
We resume this morning, our annual series through the Old Testament here at St. John Lutheran Church. We enter the story this year in the book of First Samuel.
It’s a time in the history of Israel when things are looking pretty bad. First, there is a security crisis. The Philistines, Israel’s enemy, are threatening to invade Israel. The Philistines have chariots, horses, and swords. Israel has none of these. Second, there is a moral crisis. The judges in Israel are corrupt, taking bribes. The priests aren’t much better – they steal people’s offerings. Third, there is a leadership crisis. No one in the country is able to lead them on a right path. In fact, the last words in the book of Judges, the book that precedes First Samuel, had this to say: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) In other words, there is anarchy, injustice, corruption and violence.
Our story today of Hannah and the birth of Samuel is the beginning of the story of God’s intervention into this situation.
When I think of Hannah, I think of people who overcome the odds against them.
Maya Angelou, who was a world renowned poet, writer and civil rights activist, died three years ago in 2014. In her best-selling book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” she describes her life and how she started life with the odds against her.
As a child, she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. She was so traumatized by the abuse that she became mute, did not speak a word, for five years of her childhood. She was further abused by others who called her a moron and an idiot. But she said that her grandmother told her all the time, “Grandma don’t care what these people say about you being a moron, being an idiot. Grandma knows, when you and the good Lord get ready, you’re going to be a preacher.”[1] These words of her grandmother helped Maya Angelou to overcome the odds against her. She went on to write many books, is credited with a list of plays, movies, and Television shows, received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.
Like Maya Angelou, Hannah in our Bible lesson was confronted with some great odds that were against her. Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah. Peninnah, the other wife, had several sons and daughters. However, Hannah had no children. This was a situation of great odds against Hannah because, in her day, children were the means by which a woman’s worth was measured before others, and before God. To have no child was thought to be a sign of God’s disfavor. People would say things like, “God must be angry with you. It must be something you have done. Goid must not think you to be worthy.”
And she was constantly reminded of her worthlessness—by Elkanah’s very fertile other wife, Peninnah, and even by Eli, the priest. And unlike Maya Angelou, she had no grandmother or any other family member who gave her words of encouragement.
I think what is most remarkable about Hannah’s story isn’t that God answers her prayer. The incredible part is that Hannah prays in the first place.
She has no reason, according to what others have told her, to believe that God cares for her. She has been told that she is not worth a better situation, or even that the world can be better. She knowns only brokenness and pain. But Hannah believes something else. Hannah believes that the world God desires for her and everyone else, is different than the world she lives in. And so she cries out to God in prayer, calling forth that different world, a world defined by the love of a faithful and just God who embraces all people.
And though Hannah’s prayer begins in the silence of her heart, it moves beyond her … It compels her to stand up against her circumstances and even to stand up to the priest who would deny the truth of her own value in the eyes of God.
Her cries to God remind her that there is a different world that she believes in. And her prayer draws her closer to that better world. This, I believe, is the power of prayer.
When I picture Hannah crying out in prayer, I imagine her engaging in a holy filibuster. I see her like Jimmy Stewart in a classic movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In that movie, Stewart plays an idealistic junior senator who gets tangled up in a corrupt political system that tries to destroy him. On the verge of being expelled from Congress on false claims of his own worthlessness, Smith engages in a twenty-four-hour filibuster—holding back the tide of corruption and injustice that threatens to drown him with whatever words he can summon about hope, justice, and a better world. Mr. Smith, like Hannah, lifted his voice in protest against the injustice surrounding him.
Hannah refuses to accept the story she is told by everyone around her. She drowns it out in prayer, and her prayer tells a different story. You can read chapter of 1st Samuel, where her prayer continues, and she tells of the kingdom of God where she is loved and valued, and all people are sacred and justice rolls down like water.
Perhaps your life has been touched by the brokenness of injustice, or you’ve sensed it in the events of the world around you. I think of events of the past few weeks: the two terrorists attack in England; the two young girls in Portland being harassed by a white supremacist and two heroes who lost their life defending them.
We pray because we believe that things can be different and better than they are. We pray to remind ourselves and one another that this brokenness and injustice is not the end of the story. We pray to disrupt the destructive narrative that surrounds us and filibuster against the tide of pain and injustice that threatens to overwhelm us. And we pray with confidence, because God has shown us through his son, Jesus, that he will be with us and will never forsake us.
Our prayers have power, because our prayers help us to name the way God intends this world to be, and our prayers give us strength and courage to begin working for the world that we pray for.
Hannah’s opportunities for action would have been severely limited in that ancient patriarchal world. But God did give her a son. And Hannah would raise her son to serve the Lord. This is what she could do to stand against the darkness and disrupt the brokenness around her – she could train her son to be a preacher.
In what ways can we stand up for God’s love, care, and compassion in this world of brokenness and pain? That is the question this bible lesson encourages to ask.
God sends us from our worship this morning, to go into this week ready to pray, every day, and to ask God to show us ways that we can begin working for the kind of world he intends.
And so, I would like to end with a blessing. But I need to hear this blessing in my own life as well. So, please repeat these words after me:
• May God bless you with the knowledge of his love and care for you…
• May God bless you with a hunger for his love and care to be made known in this world…
• And May God bless you with courage to begin working for the world that God intends.


About pastorjohnwaseca

ELCA Lutheran Pastor
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