Here is another story of a woman who desperately wants a child (1 Samuel 1-2:10). Like the story of Sarah from a few weeks ago, Hannah is in a situation where the other women in the relationship have children and she does not. As a result, Hannah feels as if God has abandoned her. Because she is childless in a world where a woman’s value was measured by her male children, Hannah prays for a child—a child that she will give up. She weans this child, Samuel, and leaves him at the temple for God.
In our context, it is unusual for parents to give up a child unless there are reasons why they can’t care for that child. For Hannah, just giving birth to the child was enough. She didn’t need to raise the child or look after him once he was weaned. So often when we receive something that we long for we want to hang on to that person or possession but Hannah has something to teach us. She reminds us that there is value in letting go. Hannah birthed Samuel and then let the priests and life in the temple shape him and form his life. But she didn’t just let him go. She placed him into God’s care—into an environment where the focus of his life would be on God. She prayed before he was conceived. She prayed after he was born. She prayed when she let him go. She let him go into God’s world.
You would think having a child that she wanted so much and then letting him go would be heart breaking. Instead Hannah praises God. Because she chose to give her child to God she was able to give thanks and witness to God’s work in the world. The words we find from Hannah in this passage are very similar to the words that Mary offers when she realizes she is pregnant with Jesus. These women share a sense that God transforms things. God has the ability to transform things that should be painful into something else that might be a blessing.
Hannah wanted a child so badly—something painful. She received that child—something joyful. She gave up that child—God worked through Samuel as he anointed the first 2 kings of ancient Israel. We see Mary finding herself unexpectedly pregnant—something painful. But in visiting her cousin Elizabeth she recognizes the miracle of life—something joyful. Her baby, Jesus, went on to change the world.
Once Hannah had the child she so dearly wanted she saw what God was doing as about so much more. She could see that God would not just change her life but change the world. And her prayer reflects that vision: (Paraphrase from Laughing Bird)
You, LORD, disarm the powerful,
and redistribute their strength to the helpless.
Those who consumed to excess are now queuing at soup kitchens,
but those who were deprived now feast in splendour.
Infertile couples are having children, one after the other,
while those who flaunted their children
find their families falling apart.
You, LORD, can make us or break us;
you can put us on a pedestal or knock us off.
You lift up those who have been trodden into the dirt;
you put the poor and outcast back on their feet.
You give them a place among the guests of honour,
a seat with the dignitaries and celebrities.
This prayer reflects a vision where the world is turned upside down and the unexpected happens. It reminds us that the world will not always continue as it is. The hope is in God’s ability to transform the unexpected. Sometimes the transformation happens when we are able to let go. In order for change to happen in the world, we need to be able to let go of what we treasure most.
Hannah’s song alludes to this. In order for those who are hungry to have food, those of us who are fed will have to give up some of our food. In order for those without power to have a voice, those of us with power will need to listen and let go of our power. In order for the stranger to be welcomed, those of us at the table will need to extend the circle.
Both Hannah and Mary challenge us to do these things. They see that a world with extremes cannot be viable. You can hear their frustration and their hope. As we look around our own world we might also hear frustration and hope in the voices of people around us. We might hear our brothers from White Spruce Training Centre wondering how they will survive when they get released. The cards are stacked against them. Can the world change for them? Is there any hope that life can be different? Many of them have made difficult choices and like Hannah have given up many things in hope of something better.
There are so many layers and complexities. There is no one reason why they are in jail but usually multiple layers. Some of these reasons relate to personal choices and circumstances. Some of these reasons have to do with the structures of our society that keep some people poor because of race, mental illness or disability. It has to do with poverty and addictions, access to education, good support systems. When we give up on people, when we give up on changing the world, hope ends.
Scripture tells us over and over again that the world changes. It tells us that the people who are weak become strong and the strong become weak. It tells us that those who are fed become hungry while those who are hungry are well fed. It tells us that those who are excluded will be included. It tells us that the world we live in is not a perfect world but that God is always at work transforming the world into something better.
Today is world food day. We look around and see that there are people in our own communities who are hungry. We look further away and see that there are people hungry in other parts of the world and many of us have an abundance of food. How can this reality be transformed? How does God work through us to create a more just world? It might require us to give up some of our food and some of our power.
Hannah’s song also relates to stewardship. It requires us to decide where we want to spend our resources. When we let go of our resources and send them out into the world, do we want them to go towards maintaining structures that oppress and harm people and the earth or do we send our resources of time, talent and money into places in the world where lives can be transformed and where ultimately, the world will be transformed by God’s grace.