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Prayers of Parents

Prayers of Parents

1 Samuel 1:1-6, 9-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

16 June 2024

            When Stephen and I were planning this worship series we noted that this story from I Samuel, centering a woman desiring a child, would, ironically, fall on Father’s Day.

            So, we decided to lean into it and focus our attention more broadly upon parenting and families. 

            But this isn’t a story about some conventional family.  For one, Elkanah has two wives.  A reminder that families come in various forms. 

The feature of the story that resonates for many of us in the 21st century is Hannah’s struggle in her effort to have a child.  Many families struggle with fertility.  Many must find alternative paths to form their families.  Two months ago, we hosted a First Forum in which some of our church families talked about the various routes they took in forming their families.  Adoption, in vitro, donors, surrogates—these and other methods have become common.  In a story like today’s, we can find parallels to our experiences.

Which is part of the power of the Bible.  As Eugene Peterson described it, “The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us: ‘Live into this—this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.’”

So these ancient stories call for our participation—to find the ways that God connects to us and speaks to us and the ways these stories resonate with our own.

Before continuing, I do want to take a moment to comment on something.  This week the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination I grew up in and was ordained in, passed a resolution against in vitro fertilization.  Probably all of us know children born through this medical procedure.  Couples who struggled emotionally and physically to have children and experienced in vitro as a modern miracle. 

In vitro fertilization helps to create life, to create families, to expand our ability to love and care for one another.  God gave us amazing brains and with those brains we’ve gained scientific understanding of the world.  We’ve invented and developed medical technologies and procedures that allow us to address age-old human conditions, like infertility.  Why shouldn’t we understand these modern medical miracles as themselves part of God’s gift and blessing? 

Here at First Central, and in the United Church of Christ, we embrace the good that comes from these technologies.  More importantly, we embrace the children and families that they create.  God loves you, God embraces you, you are welcomed and affirmed here.

Let me give a little introduction to the Book of First Samuel, which is the text we’ll be exploring the rest of the summer.  First Samuel is part of a series of books recounting the stories of the nation, particularly focused on the southern Israelite nation of Judah.  These stories center around the Davidic monarchy and the Temple in Jerusalem.  So kings and rulers figure prominently in the stories of First Samuel.

But one of the most fascinating aspects of these stories is how they are in depth explorations of moral character.  Unlike most nations, who tell triumphant stories of their rulers that gloss over any defects, the scribes of ancient Israel recorded both stories of triumph and failure.  All the weaknesses and shortcomings of their rulers are made clear.  Which is one reason these stories still draw our attention all these millennia later.  We resonate with the moral struggles and psychological depths of these characters.

Last week I talked about the Book of Ruth, and how it is set in the time of the judges, which was a time of chaos, disorder, and violence.  Particularly violence against women.  Ruth appears in that context as a counter-story, focused on two ordinary women and the ways they survive and thrive in the patriarchy of their day through their initiative.

First Samuel begins similarly, by centering a woman—Hannah.  The Book of Samuel implies that the project of building the nation begins in the prayers of this woman.  So, let’s turn our attention to Hannah for a moment.  What is it that she desires?

That’s the provocative question asked by biblical scholar David Jobling in his magnificent commentary on First Samuel.  A commentary I’ve been mining for treasures to preach for fifteen years now.

Jobling takes an interesting approach to this story, beginning with how he views Elkanah.  In many commentaries, Elkanah is interpreted as a man of great integrity and moral character, with deep affection for Hannah.  David Jobling isn’t so sure.  He says its possible that Elkanah with his two wives is enjoying a best-of-both-worlds available to a man in that kind of polygynous patriarchal system—he has one wife for bearing and raising children and another wife free of all those complications.  Jobling wonders, Elkanah “has no need of children from Hannah, and perhaps fears that she would cease to be attractive if she were worn out by childbearing.”

Hannah goes into the shrine and pours out her heart to God about how she feels in this situation and the way she’s being treated.  She wants a son.  But, as David Jobling points out, it’s not exactly clear why she wants a son.  Because she does not raise this son; she gives him away to be a servant of God, to grow up at the shrine.  It doesn’t seem that she wants a son for Elkanah—he’s already got children and Hannah in no way commits her son to her husband.  Nor does she seem to want a son to nurture and care for.

So, what does she want?  David Jobling says the story suggests that she wants a son who will be in service to God.  A son who will be a leader among the people.  He writes, “Perhaps this is an ambitious woman who, having little scope herself, hopes to satisfy her ambition vicariously through her son.”

Here is Jobling’s interpretive theory.  Hannah sees the state the nation is in—disorder, violence, and chaos.  She also sees the corruption of the priests at the shrine.  In the next chapter we are told about how the sons of Eli the priest have extorted people and also engaged in sexual harassment and probably worse. 

So she takes the initiative to do what she can to address the situation. Her patriarchal society limits what she is capable of doing herself, but she envisions a son who will become a leader of the people and serve without corruption.  Jobling writes, “As the initiative-taker in her story she is the cause of the restoration and glorification of judgeship in Samuel.  Through her son she achieves the resolution of the . . . scandals of her time.”  Through Hannah’s persistence and faithfulness, change for the better is brought to her people.

So, she is, in many ways, a mother of the nation, helping to give birth to a new order.

Hannah begins her revolutionary work with prayer.  Some commentators call her a “prayer-warrior,” to parallel the warriors we so often encounter in these stories.  Eugene Peterson makes much of Hannah’s prayers.  He points out how she’s not intimidated by religious authority, and that she goes around the prescribed rules for religious rituals, and takes matters into her own hands.  He writes, “She uses her own words, her own voice, without intermediaries.”  She boldly asserts her needs and is confident that God has addressed them.

Which suggests that she believes in a God who listens, who is present with us, who lives in solidarity to human need and suffering and responds. 

Today we sang “This Is My Father’s World.”  I love this hymn, and we don’t often sing it in its traditional form.  One thing I love about it is that the God it celebrates is not some removed and distant judge.  God in this hymn is immanent, present everywhere, gently discovered in nature—“in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.”  This hymn does celebrate God as Father, but it is a loving, affectionate, present father.  The best kind.  The ideal, really.

And because God is so intimately present, God is the power that strengthens us to fight the evils of our time.  When I find myself in times of trouble, or dismayed about the situation of the world, I will sing that last verse—“Oh, let me not forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. . . . The battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.”

Another aside.  Two weeks ago the greatest living Christian theologian died.  Jurgen Moltmann grew up a youth in Nazi Germany.  As a teenager he was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery and experienced the horrors of bombing, watching his friends die.  He spent time in a British prisoner-of-war camp, and there discovered the Christian faith in its fullness.  Over the last seventy years he’s been one of the most prominent and influential of Christian voices.  Realizing that after the horrors of the war, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb, belief in God was endangered.  What was needed was a theology that arose from these experiences of suffering.

And so Moltmann wrote about a God who suffers with us.  Not a God that is remote, free of emotion, and unacquainted with the human condition.  But a God who feels, who loves deeply and compassionately, and who took it upon God’s self at the cross to experience the depths of human evil and suffering. And because of the crucifixion, God is a power always present with us in our suffering and pain.

Moltmann, though, was primarily a theologian of hope.  That we must always be looking forward to newness and possibility.  That we are the eternal beginners.  And what we hope for is a fullness of life, an eternal livingness, that enriches our experiences every day.  He celebrated the ways we encounter God in all that is joyful, good, beautiful, and fun.

And so the Christian church mourns the passing of this, our brother, one of the greatest Christian voices of all time. 

I see a parallel with Hannah’s belief in God.  She is confident that God will hear her and respond.  That her child will bring about the changes she desires, a nation that lives more fully into God’s vision for humanity.

The story of Hannah is not one of an ideal parent, as we usually conceive it.  Frankly, she doesn’t seem all that maternal.  Her vision is big and bold and far transcends her own family.  So, she becomes an interesting model for us and a reminder that families come in many forms, and that there’s not just one model for how we parent.

To those who are parents or who long to be parents, what is it you desire?  What do you hope and dream for your children?  What are your prayers? 

For God, who is also our parent, our mother and father, is listening.  God has dreams and desires to.  Of how each of us can transform and grow into our best selves.  Of how we can all learn to be family to one another.  Of how our society can become more just and kind and good.

So, let us pray for what we desire—for our children, our families, our world.  Trusting that God is with us as we work together to make our longings a reality.


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