Sunday’s sermon: Prayer is Complicated

Text used – 1 Samuel 1:9-20; 2:1-10

  • Well, y’all, I have to be honest with you: it’s starting to feel like this year of Narrative Lectionary readings are all about difficult texts.
    • Began with story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden → never an easy story to tackle because it forces us to look at the active and complicit role we play in disobeying God
    • Continued a few weeks later with the story of the first Passover → tough story because we catch a glimpse of God’s vengeance in the final plague: the death of every first born in Egypt
    • Last week’s story about the Israelites and the golden calf and Moses talking God out of punishing the people harshly for their rebellion → not exactly a warm and fuzzy bedtime story!
    • Thread that binds all these challenging stories together = the steadfast nature of God’s promise
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of our human fickleness and failings
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of injustice and oppression from those in power
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of God’s own frustration and indignation over human stubbornness and doubt
        • Promise of God’s presence
        • Promise of God’s love
        • Promise of God’s hope, even in situations where hope seems most minimal
  • And then we come to today’s text: the story of Hannah, her prayer, and her son, Samuel. → painful story in and of itself
    • First, let’s fill in some of the gaps around today’s portion of the story.
      • Elkanah has 2 wives: Hannah and Peninnah → Peninnah has children, Hannah does not
      • Earlier in 1 Sam 1: Every year [Elkanah] would leave his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD of heavenly forces in Shiloh … Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the LORD had kept her from conceiving.[1]
      • Also revealed in the earlier part of 1 Sam 1: Peninnah would tease Hannah mercilessly because she had no children
    • Today’s story opens on just one such time: Hannah is particularly distraught and so she goes to the temple to present herself to God → And in Hannah’s words, we hear a prayer that is especially, painfully poignant as we recognize October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month – text: Then [Hannah] made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”[2] → I think it’s hard for us to understand the true power behind Hannah’s prayer and her vow. She is pleading with God with every fiber of her being for a child, and her longing is so deep and desperate that she is promising to give that child back to God if only she can bring him into this world.
      • Not a prayer simply relegated to the pages of Scripture and history → This is a prayer prayed by women around the world every day. “If only, God, then I’ll give you this … I’ll do that … I’ll be this … I’ll change that … Anything you want, God, if only …” If only, God … if only.
      • Hannah’s prayer exemplifies everything that is both culturally wrong and wholly right when it comes to our attitudes about prayer → Hannah’s prayer is raw and real. It is revealing in the most intimate of ways, bearing her heart and soul openly to God. It’s the kind of prayer that we aspire to … but also the kind of prayer that makes us uncomfortable to witness. It’s not the “Minnesota nice” form of prayer: “Please and thank you, God, if you have time.”
        • Rev. Joanna Harader: Hannah’s prayer is simply not proper. She is far too bold before God. Far too emotional. We are much more comfortable with the way Jesus taught us to pray. Head bowed, eyes closed. (O.K., that’s not actually in the Bible, but we know that’s how it works.) “Your will be done; give us our daily bread.” It’s a modest, humble, controlled prayer. There is much good in the prayer that Jesus taught us. It is our model. That is why we pray it—or a version of it—almost every Sunday. [But] I want to lift up the virtues of the improper prayer; of Hannah’s gut-wrenching, emotionally charged tirade and bargaining session.[3]
    • And so Hannah is there in the temple, distraught to the point where she is sobbing uncontrollably. And then we have this strange and uncomfortable interaction between Eli, the priest, and Hannah.
      • Hannah is standing there praying and crying – text: Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent.[4] → We can just feel the passion and the fervor in Hannah’s prayers, can’t we, because we’ve all prayed prayers like this at some time, haven’t we? Prayers into which we pour every ounce of ourselves – our hopes, our dread, our desperation, our longing, and our whole hearts.
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for ourselves
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our loved ones
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our neighbors
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our country and our world
        • These are the soul-bearing, soul-altering prayers of our deepest selves – the prayers that we pray in anxiety and distress, the prayers the give voice and hope to the most fervent hopes and fears of our souls, the prayers that cannot help but have a lasting effect on the course of our whole lives.
      • Eli finds Hannah pouring her heart and soul, her words and tears into this whole-body prayer. – response is awkward (to say the least): Eli thought she was drunk. “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her. “No, sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!”[5] → Did you just cringe? ‘Cuz I did! In the midst of this greater lesson prayer, Eli gives us this delicate and uncomfortable lesson on snap judgments, right? Eli assumes he knows exactly what’s going on, so he reprimands this lone woman who’s acting a little odd, expecting her to apologize and repent. But instead, Hannah pours out her heart to him, begging him to believe that she is not drunk but instead is distraught. Yikes. A reminder that you never know what struggles someone is bearing in silence.
    • After Hannah’s explanation, Eli sends her off with a blessing à Hannah heads home with Elkanah → text: The Lord remembered her.[6] → Hannah becomes pregnant with Samuel
  • And, friends, there’s so much that’s challenging wrapped up in that turn of events!
    • So many difficult questions:
      • Were Hannah’s prayers so much better … so much louder … so much more effective than the prayers of thousands of others who have prayed exactly the same thing with no result?
      • Was there something special about Hannah that God chose to remember her while refusing or neglecting to remember so many others who have felt the same pain and prayed the same prayer?
      • Was there something about Eli’s blessing that tipped the scales in Hannah’s direction, that turned a spotlight onto her plight and drew God’s attention in an undeniable way?
      • I don’t think the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” and yet we cannot help but ask them, can we? Because whether we realize it or not, we all know someone who has struggled with fertility, with pregnancy loss, with the loss of a child. Statistics say one in four women will suffer some sort of miscarriage or pregnancy loss in their lives. One in four will pray the same kind of prayer that Hannah prayed. Some will conceive … or conceive again. And some will not. And that leaves us wrestling with just how complicated prayer can be.
        • Complicated in the asking – the how, the why, the words
        • Complicated in the waiting
        • Complicated in the response – whatever the response
    • Prayer is the rawest, realest, most fragile and precarious act of faith that we can engage in because it involves nothing but our greatest vulnerability.
      • Involves naming our weaknesses and our deepest longings to God
      • Involves holding them out in hope that God will act – trusting that God will act – but without any kind of assurance that God will act in the way that we want God to act
      • Involves uncertainty … And human beings are not very good at uncertainty. I think our golden calf story from last week proved that pretty well.
        • Paul speaks of prayers like this in Romans: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.[7]
        • Kate Bowler, author and assistant professor at Duke Divinity School (in Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved): I plead with a God of Maybe, who may or may not let me collect more years. It is a God I love, and a God that breaks my heart.[8]
      • Sometimes we get to pray the prayer that Hannah prays at the end of our Scripture reading this morning – a prayer of joy and thanksgiving that is literally overflowing from her soul just like her tears overflowed as she prayed in the temple at the beginning of our text. And sometimes we are left aching and wondering. And I wish with all I am that I could tell you why this morning – that I could wrap this all up for you in a neat, easy theological package and say, “Here’s the solution. Pray exactly this way, and God will always do what you ask.” But I can’t.
        • What I can tell you: Getting an undesired response to prayer is not a reflection on the way you prayed – the form, the frequency, the fervor, or the faith behind your prayers → There’s a lot of really bad, really twisted, really harmful theology swirling around in Christian circles today that will try to tell you that if you’re suffering, it’s because you haven’t prayed hard enough or faithfully enough. This theology will try to tell you that cures and miracle fixes and the answer to all your problems lies right around the corner if you’d only get your prayers “right.” But that’s wrong. Do you know what lesson we can take from this difficult text on prayer and pain this morning? God’s presence. God does indeed hear our prayers. God holds sacred space for them all – the happy ones and the sad ones, the desperate ones and the delighted ones, even the most boring and basic ones and the ones that we cannot even put words to. God is there with us in the midst of prayer, arms open, heart open, grace open and beckoning. Because in the end, friends, that is why we pray: to remind ourselves that God is, indeed, there as promised, and to remind God that we are here and we are willing to engage in our faith … even when it is gut-wrenchingly, soul-achingly hard. Amen.

[1] 1 Sam 1:3, 4-5.

[2] 1 Sam 1:11.

[3] Joanna Harader. “1 Samuel 1:4-18” from Spacious Faith: Spiritual Practices, Worship Pieces, and General Ponderings blog. https://spaciousfaith.com/1-samuel-14-18/?fbclid=IwAR3KlF7lQc9datN_eKwvUKk6FIeF9KqKcyYPaBiRoXoH0vImREoBJsHpCgo. Posted July 20, 2008, accessed Oct. 18, 2020.

[4] 1 Sam 1:13 (emphasis added).

[5] 1 Sam 1:13b-16.

[6] 1 Sam 1:19.

[7] Rom 8:26 (NRSV).

[8] Kate Bowler. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. (New York, NY: Random House, 2018), xv.