Grief and Gratitude 11/18/18 (Proper 28B, Thanksgiving and Stewardship Sunday)

GRIEF AND GRATITUDE
REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
TEXT: 1 SAMUEL 1:4-20, 2:1-10
NOVEMBER 18, 2018
33RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (PROPER 28B)
THANKSGIVING AND STEWARDSHIP SUNDAY

Women in the Bible make up only about 5-8% of the total of all named characters in the Bible, male and female.[1] The fact that the books of 1 and 2 Samuel begin with a woman’s story, and a named woman at that, tells us that we should sit up and pay attention. This story is important. In fact, because of Hannah the history of Israel will be radically transformed.

Scholar Stan Mast sums up the historical situation this way:

Israel was faced with two crises that threatened its very existence. The more obvious was the threat from the outside posed by the Philistines. The more serious threat was from the inside caused by the immoral behavior of the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, who were in charge of worship at the house of God (verse 3). The military crisis caused the Israelites to demand a king who would lead them in battle. The spiritual crisis of corrupt leadership stood in the way of solving that military problem. Change was needed if Israel was to survive. To put it in even starker terms, unless there were some major transformations, the Kingdom of God on earth would cease to exist and God’s great move to save the world would be stopped. [2]

Into this situation comes a new hope. It’s an unexpected hope, for it begins with a “sad little family drama.” [3]

As our story opens, we learn that this little family, Elkanah, his wife Peninnah and her children, and Hannah, travel from their home in hill country of Ephraim to the temple in Shiloh, as they did every year. We don’t know if this was a pilgrimage undertaken to fulfill God’s command that every Israelite attend the celebration of at least one of the three major annual festivals or if this was just a private family ritual. However, “most scholars think that this was probably the annual Feast of Tabernacles which occurred at the time of harvest, when Israel remembered their time of living in tents in the wilderness and also celebrated God’s provision in the harvest. It was a time of thanking God for past deliverance and for the present fruitfulness of the land.” [4]

For Hannah, though, this was not a time of thanksgiving. Peninnah, she of the many children, provoked and taunted her for her childlessness. The ritual thanksgiving of this holy journey only highlighted Peninnah’s prolific womb and Hannah’s barren one. Being assured by Elkanah of his love for her, demonstrated by the double portion of meat that he gave to Hannah during the ritual meal, did not comfort her. Year after year, Hannah’s pain and sorrow was magnified at the very place that was supposed to bring solace, at the very time that was supposed to inspire gratitude.

This is a deep, wrenching, soul-pain. It is, as scholar Alphonetta Wines has said, the kind of “unsettled ache [which] lingers no matter what one does.” Wines continues:

Possibility thinking, positive psychology, words of affirmation, wishing, hoping, even praying don’t make the hurt go away. Like the smell of smoke after a cigarette has been extinguished, this type of pain relentlessly meanders in one’s thoughts. It is an unwelcome guest that wore out its welcome long ago. Unlike hurts that are at least manageable, this type of hurt affects one’s entire life, leaving heart wounded and spirit broken. This type of wound impinges not only life circumstances, but also one’s sense of self…This is the “Hannah kind of hurt.” [5]

“The Hannah kind of hurt.” Anyone who has suffered the agony of infertility knows this kind of hurt. Indeed, anyone who has suffered a major loss of any kind, anyone who has faced the darkness of violence, anyone who has encountered illness or homelessness or war – yes, perhaps all of us in one way or another – which is to say, most human beings – at one time or another live with the Hannah kind of hurt.

Certainly being taunted or shamed does not help alleviate that pain. But neither do such well-meaning comments like Elkanah’s: “Am I not of more worth to you than ten sons?” Any remark to a person suffering deep pain that begins with the words “at least” is sure to be far more hurtful than helpful. (“At least you have me!” “At least you have other children!” “At least your car didn’t get wrecked in that accident that broke your wrist!”) And any suggestions to “just go outside,” to “look at the positive things in your life,” or to “get over it” in some arbitrary time frame are deeply wounding and can leave the one who is suffering feeling unheard and alone. And those who dismiss the deep pain and mistake it for mental illness, physiological disorder, delusion, or drunkenness (like the priest Eli) also only make it worse.

What does Hannah do? Well, first we know what Hannah did not do. As Alphonetta Wines says:

Despite her pain, Hannah would not be like the barren women before her. She would not be like Sarah who insisted that Abraham evict Hagar so that Ishmael would have no part in Isaac’s inheritance. She would not be like Rachel whose competition with her sister Leah to bear children for Jacob did not end until Rachel’s self-fulfilling prophecy came true when she died giving birth to Benjamin.

Hannah chose another path. Unlike the barren women before her, she took her concerns to God. While David is explicitly described as a man after God’s own heart, Hannah implicitly is a woman after God’s own heart. Like David who later would refuse to harm God’s anointed, King Saul, Hannah refuses to retaliate against her rival, Peninnah.

Instead, Hannah rises from the post-sacrifice meal and goes to the temple. As The Message renders it, “Crushed in soul, Hannah prayed to God and cried and cried inconsolably.” She pours out her heart until there is nothing left. And when she tells Eli that she is desperately unhappy and praying to God, he finally understands and offers her a blessing. But it’s a strange blessing: “the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”

You know, in a way, all times could be described – at least in part – as troubled times. Whether we are holding the pain of the world or of our community, or suffering a more personal agony, there is never a time when all is truly “right with the world.” There’s always something. And it could be for some of us in this sanctuary today that the festival of Thanksgiving, with its food and maybe a ritual of going around the table and saying what we are thankful for and festivities and merry-making in general can be more painful than joyous this year. It could be for some of us that time with family is as fraught as the time Hannah had to spend with Peninnah. Or maybe we are missing someone whose chair remains empty at the table. Perhaps we’ve suffered a major loss or are drowning under the crushing weight of depression. Who knows? All I know is that that pain is real. And nothing I or anyone else can say will really make it better or make it go away faster or just make you happy.

The journey through pain is just that: a journey. And it takes as long as it takes.

And so for the remainder of this sermon, I hope you will hear me very clearly: I am not for one minute trying to diminish anyone’s pain. I am not for one minute telling anyone in this room that it’s time to fix it, get over it, or move on. I am not for one minute trying to give any of you a formula for making it all better.

But I am wondering if we can find a benediction even in the midst of our pain, a good word that will keep a little light shining even in the midst of our darkness. Not a brilliant sun kind of light that blinds us and drives the darkness away, but a smaller light, maybe a votive candle, that gives us just enough light to see the next step we might take.

So let me lighten things up for a little bit. Without dismissing the pain some of us may be feeling, or may have felt in the past, or may feel in the future, and without in any way suggesting that the following story is a prescription for getting rid of pain, let me tell you about writer A. J. Jacobs.[6]  “In my default mode, I’m mildly to severely aggravated more than 50 percent of my waking hours. That’s a ridiculous way to go through life. I don’t want to get to heaven (if such a thing exists) and spend my time complaining about the volume of the harp music.”

“Gratitude,” he says, “is not an emotion that comes naturally to me.” But Jacobs discovered that research shows that:

Gratitude’s psychological benefits are legion: it can lift depression, help you sleep, improve your diet, and make you more likely to exercise. Heart patients recover more quickly when they keep a gratitude journal. A recent study showed gratitude causes people to be more generous and kinder to strangers. Another study found that gratitude is the single best predictor of well-being and good relationships, beating out twenty-four other traits such as hope, love, and creativity. As the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast…says, “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.” [7]

“Sometimes, before a meal, I’ll say a prayer of thanksgiving,” says Jacobs. “Sort of. I’m agnostic, so instead of thanking God, I’ll occasionally start a meal by thanking a handful of people who helped get our food to the plate. I’ll say, ‘Thank you to the farmer who grew the carrots, to the truck driver who hauled them, to the cashier at Gristedes grocery store who rang me up.’”

But one night Jacobs’ son said, “You know these people can’t hear you, right?” Jacobs conceded the point but suggested that it’s good to remind ourselves of others’ contributions to our lives and well-being.

But it got him thinking. What would it be like to personally thank everyone who helped make his food?

Of course, that would be a ridiculous and impossible undertaking. So he narrowed it down: he decided to thank everyone who made it possible for him to get a cup of coffee at his favorite neighborhood café every day.

He started with the barista, thanking her for her service. This leads to a fascinating and personal conversation between the two of them, when he learns about her family and history and experiences working as a barista. She is transformed in his eyes, becoming a three-dimensional person rather than a coffee vending machine.

From there he thanked the man who chooses the coffee. Which led to the man who designed the coffee lids for the to-go cups. And then the woman who manages pest control at the warehouse where the coffee is stored. And the farmers in Colombia, who told him about the de-pulping machine made in Brazil and the pick-up truck whose steel is made in the US…and on and on it went. Hence the name of the book he wrote about this experience: “Thanks a Thousand!”

For Hannah, prayers are answered the way she hopes: she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel, who will help change Israel’s history. This is not always the case. Even so, the practice of gratitude can help us see that blessings really do live alongside pain.

After Samuel’s birth, Hannah sings a beautiful song reminiscent of Mary’s Magnificat. It’s not so much a prayer of thanks for her own son, but a sweeping psalm of praise for the good and mighty God who not only gives one barren woman a son, but who also changes the world:

The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces,
while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts,
while the hungry are getting second helpings.
The barren woman has a houseful of children,
while the mother of many is bereft…

No one makes it in this life by sheer muscle!
…God will set things right over the earth… (1 Sam. 2:1-10, selected; The Message)

No, gratitude will not make everything perfect. But it can, as David Steindl-Rast says, “change the world.” He continues:

If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough, and not a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid under which we live. It doesn’t make for equality, but it makes for equal respect… [8]

Gratitude opens our eyes to really see the barista in front of us and celebrate her humanity; to notice the sun shining and the rain falling which allow food to grow; to recognize our bodies and all they can do; to honor the interdependent web of which we all are a part.

Here at Second Congregational, we practice non-violence in terms of our communication with one another and in our prayers for peace – prayers which hopefully inspire us to go from this place and take action to support peace efforts in our community and the wider world. Here we practice a sense of abundance and encourage a willingness to share – a willingness we demonstrate today by offering food for those in need so they too may celebrate on Thursday, and by pledging to support the missions and ministries of God through this congregation with our money – much as Hannah gave her own precious son back to God’s service at the temple. Here we enjoy one another in all of our quirkiness and uniqueness, and we work to respect one another even when we disagree. Furthermore, we work to respect others who do not worship with us by standing up for LGBTQ folks, by attending vigils and offering support to communities who are persecuted or violently attacked, by speaking out against injustices whenever we can.

That is a grateful life. I’m grateful for my morning coffee and all of those who got it into my mug today. I’m grateful for a home that has not been ravaged by fires, for a child who I love beyond measure, for a family who offers me support and love. I’m grateful for sunshine and rain and yes, even snow (although I may grumble about it). And I’m grateful for this community, so rich in gifts and so loving in spirit.

And so, deeply and honestly, I say: thanks be to God.

 

[1] “Women in the Bible,” Wikipedia.

[2] Stan Mast, “Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:4-20” at The Center for Excellence in Preaching.

[3] Mast.

[4] Mast.

[5] Alphonetta Wines, “Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:4-20” at Working Preacher.

[6] A. J. Jacobs, “Why You Should Always Thank Your Barista” at ideas.ted.com

[7] Jacobs.

[8] David Steindl-Rast, “Want To Be Happy? Be Grateful” at TED.com

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