1 Samuel 2:1-10 Steph moved here almost 30 years ago from western Pennsylvania. Her family has always remained in the farming area outside of Pittsburgh. She came to marry a Baltimore boy. After only 7 and half years of marriage, her husband died. She has stayed here and eked out a living at various jobs, working the last 14 years at a bar in Parkville. When the house her apartment was in was sold about 10 years ago, she moved into an apartment above the bar where she works. Now she finds herself with no job, with eviction papers and a BGE shutoff notice, unable to drive her vehicle without insurance. Steph is throwing in the towel and going home. She really has no other recourse. When we met her she was not crying, but she could have been. Her life, never filled with material abundance, has completely unraveled, and despite her hopes that something would work out here in Baltimore, she is calling it quits after 30 years, ready to start over in a community where her roots are, ready to go home. Steph is blessed. She has a lifeline to call in. Not everyone does.
Hannah had a loving husband, an extra share of the food, all the creature comforts, but no child. No baby to care for. No son to care for her in her old age. Scorned by “the other woman”, looked down upon by the community, and feeling forgotten by God. She did cry. She did not eat. She saw nothing good ahead. She had lost hope that anything would ever change for her. The womb was closed.
And God intervened. God not only has the power to transform her situation, but God has a willingness to intervene. God heard her prayer and Hannah gave birth to a child, a son, even! She knows immediately that this was the power of God at work, a transformative power that took the barren one and made her fertile, the same kind of transformative power that took the poor ones and satisfied them, the weak ones and made them strong. It is the theme of reversal, trading places. Because of God and God alone, Hannah traded barrenness for fruitfulness, hopelessness for joy, sadness for gratitude and praise.
Her song is really a song of praise which echoes through the history of Israel. When God lifts up the weak, the powerless, the poor, the widow, the barren, the people praise God’s amazing work in their midst. It has become a part of their understanding of who God is. The historical narrative found in Deuteronomy describes the God of the cosmos, the God of the universe as the same God who cares about the marginalized, the weak and the barren. “God doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for the orphans and widows, he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.” Listen to the words of the psalmist in Psalm 113: “God lifts up the poor from the dirt and raises up the needy from the garbage pile to seat them with leaders—with the leaders of his own people! God nests the once barren woman at home—now a joyful mother with children! Praise the Lord!”
The same theme of reversal is found in Mary’s song after she learns she will carry a son for another amazing birth. “He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant (meaning herself)..He shows mercy to everyone, He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations, he has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things…..” Mary’s song follows the pattern of Hannah’s song– doxologies, or songs of praise to a God who transforms the marginalized into people of value and dignity. Mary’s song has been called “The Magnificat”, using the first word in the Latin translation of the Greek New Testament. I magnify the Lord, she says. Magnificat. Keep your ears open this morning. You will hear Mary’s song again.
The birth of Samuel is the turning point in the life of the people of Israel. The people were in a rough spot. The time of slavery was over. The wanderings in the wilderness were over. They were finally in a land, a place to call home. They had begun to forget that their king was God, that it was God who they had always depended on for life. They looked to local leaders called judges. But the judges who had gained authority were mostly corrupt. No one seemed to have a grasp on what a good leader was. They had no king, and everyone just did what they wanted. Sounds like they were not keeping the commandments, the rules for life together. They acted like it didn’t matter what the rules were. They were on a fast-track to ruin.
It is through Samuel that the kingship begins, leading to the anointing of a very young, un-assuming David as king over Israel. Hannah’s song is more than a personal exclamation of joy and thanks. It is a communal song of praise to God who has intervened and will continue to intervene in the life of the people. It asks God to give strength to his king, and describes the hope for the kingship for time to come. Future kings will be measured by how they treat those on the margins of society: the poor, the weak, the barren, the powerless.
Our community is filled with Hannahs and Stephs. With people who feel powerless to change their circumstances, who feel hopeless, who are barren on multiple levels. There is the family whose refrigerator is barren at times. There is the lonely, elderly man whose home is void of laughter and voices. There is the young man whose resume is barren because no one will give him a chance to work after being released from prison. There is the immigrant family whose home is barren of furniture but full of joy. There is the neighbor whose social calendar is barren, who is not included in out of office events or neighborhood gatherings. There is the couple unable to have children, with a nursery whose crib is barren.
What do we say to those whose tears never seem to stop? Where do they find hope? How do they become singers of praise to God? Can we point them to the Giver, to the God who does not play favorites, the God who refuses to build walls, the God who treats people from all nations with grace? Can they find hope for a future based on an understanding of the way God has worked and the way God promises to work and the way God is? Not all those who are barren find fruitfulness like Hannah. Not all those who are materially poor find themselves comfortable financially. But anyone can sing a song of praise to God, a doxology to the Giver, the Transformer, the God of those on the margins, those who are barren, those who are crying.
As we finally arrive to election day 2016, we are watching the arrogant get tripped up by their own antics, the powerful get caught in their abuses of power, the rich get lambasted for their treatment of the poor. We too can measure our leaders by the way they treat those on the margins, voting for those with a record of caring for men and women, young and old, citizen and undocumented immigrant, Christian and not. Perhaps today is the day to sing with Hannah, to sing with the psalmist, to sing with Mary: My heart, my soul rejoices in the Lord, because God lifts up the poor to be seated with the leaders. God gives power to those who have not had it. God brings death and gives life. No one is holy like the Lord.