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“There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.  2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD.  4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;  5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.  6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.  7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.  8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD.  10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly.  11 She made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

12  As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth.  13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.  14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”  15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.  16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”  17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”  18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her.” – 1 Samuel 1:1-19

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Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.  2 “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.  3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.  4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.  6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.  7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.  8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.  9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.  10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” – 1 Samuel 2:1-10

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Today we have two readings from I Samuel: the first tells the story of Hannah, a woman who was feeling distraught and hopeless in her life circumstances; and the reading is Hannah’s song of joy and victory when God finally hears her prayer and she finds hope.

Hannah

I think these passages fit us well today, because there are a lot of things these days that can make us feel hopeless. The pandemic, for one, has us all on edge. Many of our communities are full of old structures and old institutions that need renewing if not replacing. Our society is full of violence and apathy. And our churches – all of them, of any kind – are struggling and have seen better days. We wonder how to reach out with God’s message to our communities, how to share the good news of Jesus, when people don’t seem to even want to hear it any more.

What does one do when it seems like hope is dead and the future looks bleak? Hannah was a woman in that same spot, who managed to find God and find hope. So I want to share her story this morning.

Hannah was a young woman of the people of Israel. She was married to a wealthy man who believed in God whose name was Elkanah. Hannah’s name means “favor of God” or “grace of God,” but she didn’t feel very favored by God. After many years of marriage, to a husband who loved her very much, they had no children. Back then, in a world where there were no retirement homes or supermarkets or home health aides, the only way to eat was to farm, and a person’s senior years depended on having children who would be able to take care of the farm and the parents as they aged. And things would be even worse for Hannah if Elkanah died before she did. To be a widow or an orphan in those times was pretty much the worst thing that could happen to a person – it was literally life-threatening.

So Elkanah did what many men in those days did in that situation: he took a second wife with whom to have children. We see this happen, with some variations, with Abraham and Sarah, and with Jacob and Rachel, and with other couples in the Bible. Having a second wife was not illegal back then, and it was not against the Law of Moses either. Generally speaking in those days men who had more than one wife were either wealthy (which Elkanah was) or desperate for children (which Elkanah also was). Not an ideal situation, but not unusual.

Elkanah’s second wife, Peninah, was prolific!  She had baby after baby after baby.

Every year, Elkanah, who was a devout man, took his family to Shiloh to worship. Worship back then included sacrificing animals: the fat would be burned on the altar as an offering to God, and then the meat would be shared between the family and the priests. So each member of the family would receive a slice of the roast (so to speak) – one for Peninnah, one for each child, and two portions were given to Hannah because Elkanah loved her.

Peninnah, the mother of all these children, saw that she couldn’t win Elkanah’s love, and it rankled. So she did everything she could to rub Hannah’s face in the fact she had no children.

Hannah n Other Family

There is nothing in this world more catty than women comparing their children: how many they’ve got, what gender they are, what they’ve accomplished, what they do for a living…  I have actually heard real live women say things to other women like: “oh how wonderful – another girl! Are you guys going to try for a boy next?” Or this: “Thirty-two and not married? Don’t worry, you still have lots of time.”

So I can just imagine Peninnah: “hey Hannah, I’m going to run into town to buy some clothes for the kids, wanna come?” Or at the sacrifice: “Don’t forget, Elkanah honey, I’m gonna need seven portions this year!”

The author of Samuel says that Peninnah “provoked Hannah severely”.  Translation: she really dug her claws in. Hannah’s lack of kids wasn’t for lack of trying, but nothing they tried worked. Year after year she was shamed and ridiculed and driven to tears by a woman the author of Samuel calls “her rival”.

The dictionary defines a ‘rival’ as “a person competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity.”  That’s exactly what Peninnah was doing. If she couldn’t win Elkanah’s love, she was going to see to it that she got his attention, and lots of it, through those kids.

Hannah meanwhile was feeling like all hope was gone and her future was grim. I’d like us to consider this question today: where in life do we feel like hope is gone? Do we have health problems? Financial problems? Family problems? As church members, do we fear for the future of our church? Do we fear for the future of our community? Whatever our minds are focused on these days, I’d like to suggest holding that thing in mind as we move into Hannah’s story.

Hannah had tried everything. Nothing worked. She felt like even God was against her. In fact the writer of Samuel says twice “the Lord had closed her womb”. I’m sure that’s how it felt to Hannah. And Jewish scholars point out that Hannah wasn’t wrong: the Lord had closed her womb.

God had put Hannah in exactly this situation at exactly this time because God wanted to do something BIG through her. God wanted to bring someone special into the world: a man who would lead his people from being scattered tribes to a united kingdom under the leadership of David.

Whatever difficulty or hard place we find ourselves in right now, consider the possibility (it’s not always the case, but it may be) we’re in these situations because God wants us to reach out to him with the passion and conviction and daring that Hannah did.

Listen to how Hannah talks to God! She says in her prayer: “Lord! If you would only look at me! If you would only see the pain in my heart! If you would only remember me! If you would give me a male child – I promise I will give him back to you as a Nazirite…”

I need to break into the story just for a moment to explain what Hannah is promising. A Nazirite was a special order of holy men back then (Samson was a Nazirite). Nazirites never touched alcohol and never cut their hair, as a sign of their lifelong commitment to God. They often had charismatic gifts; they were men in whom the Spirit of the Lord dwelled with power. And they were set aside as Nazirites by their parents at birth.

So basically what Hannah is saying is that if God will only give her a son, she will give him back to God – which will be extremely painful for Hannah as the boy grows up. But at this point Hannah is beyond caring about herself. She is not asking for a child to take care of her in old age. She is not asking for relief against her rival. She is not asking for a son she can raise. She is asking probably the hardest thing in the world: to give birth to a child so she can give him away. She would see him once a year when they sacrificed at the temple, and that would be all.

So this is her promise: “I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Hannah praying

This was exactly the prayer God had been waiting for. This prayer sets God’s plan in motion. All the trouble and all the pain had been leading up to this. God had a plan, and God wanted to include Hannah in that plan.

Whatever difficulties are going on in our lives right now, in life or in the church or in the community, what would happen if we did what Hannah did? If we gave up all personal interest and simply said, “Lord please hear me. Lord please remember me. This situation right here needs to change, and I want what you want. Please hear me.”

The minute Hannah prayed this prayer – she was immediately attacked! She was so passionate in her prayer, the high priest Eli thought she was drunk! But she stood up for herself (which is not always easy when one is talking to high-ranking clergy) and she said, “no sir, I’m not drunk. I’m just very upset and deeply troubled. I have been pouring out my heart and my vexation to God.”

And Eli gave her God’s answer: “Go in peace; and may God grant your petition.”

For the first time in years, Hannah felt like she’d been heard. Her spirits rose, her heart was glad, and she went back to her family a new woman, and ate and drank and enjoying her husband’s company. Nothing had changed – yet – but she knew the change was coming.

Our reading in Samuel ends here but the story goes on. God remembered Hannah, and she became pregnant, and gave birth to Samuel, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. As soon as Samuel was weaned Hannah brought him to Eli for service in the temple just as she had promised God. Later on, God remembered Hannah again – and ultimately she ended up having two more sons and three daughters. God gave her what she needed as well.

But before all this happened, Hannah sang the song we read in the second reading today: a song about victory in the Lord, in a God who sees and a God who knows, who builds up the weak but destroys the mighty, who feeds the hungry and lets those who are full go without, who raises up the lowly and raises up the poor, but cuts off the wicked – a God who will judge the earth, who will give power to his anointed (and the word ‘anointed’ here means Messiah.)

If you have a moment this week, put Hannah’s song next to the Song of Mary found in Luke chapter one. It’s amazing how similar they are. Hannah, through her suffering and through her prayers, caught a glimpse of the Messiah – and she became a prophetess whose actions changed the course of history and whose words described Jesus a thousand years before he was born.

Bold Prayers

As we face into our own difficulties, whatever they may be – be courageous and bold like Hannah. Be persistent in prayer. Ask God to remember his people. And keep ears open for answers.

May God hear our prayers and, as Hannah experienced, may God send us out in the confidence and peace of knowing we have been heard. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/14/21

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“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.  14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.  16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.  18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another,  20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. – James 5:13-20

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One of the things I love about our Partnership churches is that we truly do make up a caring community (1).  We share prayer requests; we maintain prayer lists; we pray for each other on a regular basis. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t see prayer requests in our inboxes.

It’s good that we do this. In Philippians 4:6 the apostle Paul says:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Let me ask a question though: when we pray, are we watching for God’s answers? I know we do sometimes. But when we put someone on the prayer list, do we follow up with that person to see how they’re doing? When God brings something good into someone’s life, do we share that by email – sharing our joys as well as our concerns?

prayer1

Where it comes to prayer, it’s important to remember that we are God’s children and God loves us no matter what. We may not always get what we ask for in prayer, but we can be assured when we pray, God hears us and will answer.

This is a lot of what James is talking about in his letter. To give some background to our reading: the book of James was most likely written by the literal brother of Jesus whose name was James. This in itself is a miracle, because in Jesus’ lifetime, his brothers didn’t believe in him. In John chapter 7 they accused Jesus of ‘wanting to be famous’ and told him to go to Jerusalem (because that’s where people go who want to be famous). They weren’t aware that Jerusalem was where Jesus was going to die.

But now, as James is writing this book, the crucifixion and the resurrection are behind them; Jesus has accomplished what he came to earth to do, and has returned to God; and James is now a believer. So he writes to the churches to encourage them (and us) and to share some of the things he learned from his older brother Jesus.

Just before the passage we read today, James advises his fellow believers to be patient until the Lord returns –– patient like a farmer waiting for the harvest. (How appropriate for this time of year!)

prayer2

And then as we start into today’s reading, James encourages us to pray with confidence because prayer is a powerful thing (2).  James begins by asking if any members of the church are going through hard times. Being a Christian does not mean our lives will be trouble-free – in fact it can make things worse sometimes. What we are promised is that God will walk with us through this life, no matter what happens.  So if anyone is experiencing hard times, James says, pray. Not just once, but again and again. Be persistent in prayer.

And for those of us who worry a lot – you know how thoughts can get stuck in the mind sometimes, and turn over and over and over? James says we should bring all that tangle of thoughts and feelings to God – just as they are. Even if it’s a mess, God will help us untangle. Whenever I think “I just can’t make sense of this” – I know someone who can.

James doesn’t tell us how to pray: he doesn’t offer us a prayer like Jesus did in the Lord’s Prayer. But James says that it’s good to pray physical healing, emotional well-being, and spiritual discernment, as well as for day-to-day practical needs. Nothing is too big or too small for God.

On the flip side, when things are going well… when our hearts are joyful… when the sun is shining… when God’s blessings overflow – James says “sing!” Sing God’s praises. The Greek word here is psallo, spelled almost like psalm. So grab a hymn-book and sing! I think this is one of those times when the old familiar songs really do mean the most, because if we sing a song we learned in childhood or when we were younger, the happiness of that time spills into the joy of today – and then the joy just multiplies.

sing to God

So no matter how life is going – whether great or not so great – the point is, share it with God. Share it with Jesus.

Then James asks if anyone is sick, and he says if a person is sick they should call for the elders to pray and anoint them with oil.

Let me break that down just a little bit. First off, where it comes to healing, not everyone has the gift of healing. Jesus had it. Paul had it. Some of the other apostles had it. When they prayed, people were healed, just like that. We have no reason to believe that the gift of healing does not still exist today; but I personally don’t have the gift, and I don’t currently know anyone who does. I do believe it still exists. But for the most part, when we pray for the sick, we are asking for God’s help: both for the person and for whatever is wrong.

The first thing James says is the person who is sick should call for the elders. It’s interesting that James doesn’t say somebody else should call for the elders. The sick person should be the one to choose whether or not to have visitors. There are times when sick people want to be left alone, in which case that should be respected. But if a sick person wants to be prayed for, this request should be brought to the elders right away.

Second, James says the person who is sick should call for the elders.  The word elder does not have the same meaning in the New Testament that it does in the United Methodist Church: that is, someone who is ordained. The Greek word here is presbuteros, which is the word we get Presbyterian from (and that does not mean we need to call the Presbyterians!) Basically it just means anyone who has been walking with God for a long time. In the UMC, pretty much anyone who’s on Council would count as an elder, as would other lay leaders, in addition to the ordained clergy.

Third, James says to “anoint [the sick person] with oil”.  Back in Jesus’ day, olive oil was often used because it was inexpensive and it was known to have healing qualities. Today, when oil is used, any kind will do. Pass the Del Monte!

I should mention some churches today anoint the sick with oil and some don’t. In the United Methodist Church, anointing with oil usually symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit, and it’s considered a blessing, which can be given whether or not the person is ill. In my Anglican background, oil is used mostly for baptism or anointing the sick. Either way – however we understand it – I always have a small bottle of oil with me, and I offer anointing to people when I visit them in the hospital. So if any member of the congregation ever feels the need to be prayed for, just grab a couple of the elders and come see me! I have the goods!

[It takes a village (3)[1]
The last thing I wanted to point out about James’ instructions is that they are meant to be carried out in community. We don’t see anyone in this passage in James acting alone! God calls all believers into community, and that’s no accident.

community_0

I believe this is hugely important in our time. In contemporary America, especially among the unchurched, an experience of community has been all but lost. Think about it: people come together to go to school or to play sports, or occasionally for family events; but other than that, people don’t do things together much. Porch-sitting is pretty much a thing of the past. So are scouting, 4-H, the Lions, the Rotary Club, the Variety club, even neighborhood block parties. When was the last time you saw any of these things? The sense of community in our society is almost gone – especially among the younger generations.

I believe – from a standpoint of both scripture and faith – that this is one of the greatest needs of our time, and one of the greatest potentials for outreach and ministry. A lack of community leads to loneliness and alienation, and it’s become worse since the pandemic.

Sharing a sense of community is a ministry our churches are well-equipped to do. It doesn’t take a lot of people and it doesn’t take a lot of money. For example, look at the $1 Clothing Sale Stormie and her mother organized a little bit ago. Or the Baby Shower for Jesus. Or whenever we have a church dinner, and invite the public. These are things our churches do for the community – and when we do, we demonstrate why community is important, and we offer people the opportunity to become part of a community: to know what it feels like to not be so alone.

Then in verses 15-16, James says something that is a little troubling. He says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

At first glance, James seems to be saying that sickness is the result of unconfessed sin. This would be the wrong conclusion to draw. The translation should read more like, “if a person is sick they’ll be raised up, if a person has sinned they’ll be forgiven.” The word heal in verse 15, in Greek, is sozo – which can be translated either healed or saved.

So I think James’ point is that sin can be handled in much the same way as illness: if anyone has said or done something that has hurt someone, they should confess it to that person (and if necessary, to the elders) and then pray for one another.

James then gives us an illustration of the power of prayer from the life of Elijah – which reminds us and encourages us that God does answer prayer, and that God is more than powerful enough to do what is asked.

We serve a God who, in Genesis chapter one, said “light, be made!” and light was made. God’s word created everything that we see. Therefore our prayer of faith might simply be: “speak, Lord, for your creation hears.”

James then encourages us to watch over our brothers and sisters in the faith. Not being nebby; but if someone falls into temptation, pray and restore them to the community of faith. If someone wanders off like a lost sheep (and any shepherd can tell you, sheep can be really stubborn) – anyone who brings them back to the Lord will not only save that person but wipe out a multitude of their own sins.

BTW the word in Greek for ‘brought back’ is epistrepho, which we get the word apostrophe from.

apostrophe

Just like the apostrophe turns back on itself, if someone strays from the faith, they need to be guided back. That is our duty as Christian brothers and sisters, to help people make that turn. One theologian put it this way:

“The promise is that, when people stray from the faith and we help them to find their way back to faith, we will have helped to save their souls from death.  While this could refer to physical death (because some sins put a person’s… life in jeopardy), the more significant salvation is spiritual and eternal.”[2]

We are ultimately our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. (…as our Wednesday night Bible Study just read recently in Genesis, where Cain asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is yes – yes we are.)  We are called to watch out for each other, care for each other, and pray for each other.

James ends his letter here. I think letting these be his final words, is his way of telling us how important they are.

So we start out as a caring community. We have confidence in the power of prayer (because we know the God we’re talking to). And it takes a village to care for all of us and for our communities around us.

This really is the heart and pulse of the church. So keep on praying: for the sick, for the recovered, for our communities, for our pastors, for our elders, and for each one of us as we walk with God. And then watch how God will answer. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/26/21

[1] The three sub-topics are not part of the sermon but are suggested by this article by James Boice: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-james-513-20-4

[2] Sermon Writerhttps://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/james-513-20/

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