Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sacrifice 1 Samuel 1:4-20

1 Samuel 1:4-20
4On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7So 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. 8Her husband Elkanah said 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?”
9After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” 12As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
19They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

I love Hannah’s story. It’s another of those Biblical stories in which the least likely person, a person held in low esteem by others, becomes the instrument through which God brings huge blessings on God’s people, and I think we all love stories where the underdog wins.

But as much as I love this story, it’s kind of a challenge to decide how to preach it. I don’t really want to preach on Faith Rewarded because that can lead to bad theology. You know, the idea that if I am faithful I will get all the good things I want in life and that nothing bad will happen to me. But that doesn’t work. We just read Job and we know it doesn’t work.

And then there’s the whole making a deal with God thing. Hannah says, “If you give me a son, I will dedicate his life to you.” Are we supposed to think that works? I mean, it does seem to work in this case, but is that what we’re supposed to come away from this story believing – that God will make deals with us? I don’t think so. At least, I’ve always been told that I shouldn’t try to make deals like this with God.

As the week progressed and I continued to consider Hannah’s story I found myself focusing more on the outcome of the story than the piece we have here to consider. I found an opening hymn that sounds like Hannah’s song, which doesn’t appear until later in the story. I considered the great things her son would do for Israel by anointing both Saul and David as king over the nation. But I kept coming back to Hannah’s prayer.

We don’t know – the story doesn’t tell us – if Hannah had ever gone into the sanctuary to pray before, to “present herself before the Lord.” There are a few things we do know, however.

We know that a sacrifice had just been presented. It was probably part of the annual tithe Elkanah gave to the priests according to the law – the best 10% of everything he owned. This annual tithe and sacrifice was for gratitude for all the bounty God provided throughout the year. An animal without blemish had been brought to the sanctuary and sacrificed by the priest Eli. A portion of the cooked animal would have been dinner for Eli and his family, a portion would have been given to the poor of the neighborhood, and the remaining portion would provide a feast for Elkanah and his family. We know that the women of the family would not have been present, would have had no part in presentation of the sacrifice. Women didn’t, because they didn’t own anything to sacrifice.

So Hannah doesn’t bring the sacrifice for the family, her husband does. She owns nothing. She has nothing of her own that she can give to God to show her gratitude for all the blessings she has received so far. We are accustomed to thinking that Hannah’s sacrifice is her son – the dedication of his life to serve God. I think perhaps that’s not it. That is her bargain with God – that she will sacrifice the pleasure of seeing her son grow to manhood in her home by giving him to God as a child. But I think that right now, in this story, her prayer is her sacrifice. She comes into the house of the Lord and prays. Like the New Testament widow putting her mite into the offering box at the Temple, Hannah gives to God the only thing she has.

I am always concerned about whether I pray “well enough”. I have heard some of you say the same thing about yourselves. In seminary I always let someone else pray to open and close groups and bless our meals. Some of my classmates just seemed to have this wonderful gift for public prayer. I have all these books to help me learn about prayer. Some of them teach what prayer is, some teach how to pray personally, some are journals so I can write down what I’m supposed to pray for, some are textbooks on how to write prayers for public worship services, some are filled with prayers others have written that we can use, some are about how a congregation can improve it’s corporate prayer life.
Even after finishing seminary and spending the last 6+ years praying here with you, at the prayer day with our Regional Minister this week we took turns praying for each other and I found myself comparing myself to the other ministers present, thinking my prayer didn’t stack up very well. But then I thought of Hannah, and how she prayed simply and from the heart. How she opened herself to God, weeping and telling God exactly how she felt. She wasn’t concerned about being judged by anyone else, she wasn’t hurt when Eli accused her of being drunk. She “had been pouring her soul out before the Lord.” She had been making of her prayer and her heart a sacrifice to God.

I have all these books on prayer, yet I don’t remember reading about prayer as sacrifice in any of these. The idea of prayer as sacrifice is kind of a new idea for me but it makes sense. Prayer is personal, it is something that is ours and ours alone. Even if we think we aren’t very good at it, we are giving God the best we can. Certainly Hannah was not a professional pray-er, but the intensity and sincerity of her prayer was such that Eli thought she was drunk – he was just not accustomed to seeing anyone get so involved in their conversation with God. He was used to formulaic prayer – prayer that followed a certain pattern or that was written down to be repeated the same way every time. He was used to hearing the kind of prayer many of us were taught growing up. Those prayers rarely touch our souls – although they do sometimes, like when we sing the Lord’s Prayer here each Sunday. So he surely wasn’t prepared for Hannah’s emotional outpouring.

Prayer is a conversation. In any conversation both parties have to participate, otherwise it’s a monologue. There’s a video about a guy sitting in a coffee shop with Jesus, asking Jesus to intercede in his life and in other people’s lives and situations. He rattles off this long list of names and situations with about as much emotion as if he was reading the phone book. He talks and talks and talks and finally says amen. Jesus leans forward to respond and just as he is about to speak, the guy gets up, says “See ya,” and leaves. I’m afraid that is the way many of us pray.

I have found that the more I am willing to make my prayer a conversation, the more likely I am to get a response. Hannah’s response came from Eli, who assured her the Lord would grant her prayer. Our response might come from anywhere. God’s response could come to us through a remark made by another person, a billboard or book that we read, a series of events leading us in a particular direction or - whatever. Our UCC brothers and sisters remind us that “God is still speaking” and so we have to keep listening, as part of our prayer, for whatever God says however God chooses to say it.

As a congregation we have chosen to make prayer a priority during this year. We have instituted some prayer practices that we hope will bring the community into prayer with us. We have dedicated space in Charles Hall for prayer requests and give community prayer a prominent place in our worship service. I would like to suggest that we once again start a prayer group. A group who can gather to pray regularly every week, and even study together on how to pray more effectively as a congregation. I suggest this because I know how hard it is, in our very busy lives, to remember to take time to talk to God. And because we have said that prayer is a priority in our lives as a congregation it seems that we should take time as a congregation to gather for prayer.

I would further suggest that those who cannot come here to participate set aside the same time at home to pray in solidarity with those who are gathered here.

This may be a hardship. It will certainly interfere with TV watching and Facebook game playing. But I believe it is something that I, at least, must do. Because prayer is a sacrifice. It is how we tell God what is in our hearts, and it is how we listen for God’s response. It is how we give God the most private and valuable part of our selves to make room in our hearts for God’s loving care. It is how we bring the holy into our daily lives. Let us go out from here, my brothers and sisters, ready to sacrifice our hearts to God, prepared and willing to take time to be holy.