Sunday, November 19, 2006
... for a job interview.
“Standing in the Doorway”
1 Samuel 1:4-20
November 19, 2006
On this day when many U.S. churches are celebrating Thanksgiving, the lectionary offers us a passage that seems downright contrary to that intent. The story of Hannah, mother of Samuel, seems intended to steer us into darker, more pain-filled waters. It invites us to ponder questions such as, how do we cope when the world we inhabit seeks to define us, at times, against our will? How do we live with our experiences of failure, disappointment, emptiness? Where do we perceive God’s action in all this? This passage, at the very beginning of 1st Samuel, is probably intended to alert us to what an extraordinary person Samuel will be, and how important his work—the work of creating a godly monarchy from a loose confederation of tribes. All that is true. But the piece of this passage that calls to me today isn’t about the astounding accomplishments of the great prophet. Rather, it is in the domestic details of a woman’s life that I suspect most of us will be able to encounter this sacred story and see in it some reflection of our own.
When we meet Hannah, her symptom is her identity. She “has no children,” in contrast with her husband’s other wife Peninnah, who has children in abundance. It’s hard to overstate the catastrophe, the sheer scandal that infertility is understood to be in biblical literature. Fertility is always seen as a product of divine favor, and infertility, predictably, of divine judgment. Hannah is suffering as a result of her status: her rival taunts her, she weeps. Hannah has the love of her husband, but she is too miserable to eat the double portion he gives her. But the story—our portion of it, anyway—has a happy ending. After petitioning God in the temple, and having an intriguing conversation with the priest Eli, Hannah conceives and gives birth to her son Samuel. Symptom removed.
This seems to be a fairly straightforward tale: emptiness/ prayer/ fullness. Problem/ prayer/ solution. But let’s not skip too merrily to the ending. Thanksgiving for the son whose name means, “I asked him of the Lord,” will come soon enough. I prefer to ask, how do you and I relate to his story of Hannah and her symptom, removed by God’s intervention? How do we encounter this sacred story and see in it some glimpse of our own individual sacred stories? Hannah is her symptom. In her culture there is no other way for her to be perceived, except as “barren.” She is not functioning according to the cultural mores assigned to her: she is out of step with her peer group. Hannah has an expectation placed upon her—one she very much wants to fulfill, I might add—and her perceived failure defines her. Like Hannah, you and I sometimes have roles that are assigned to us, with or without our consent. Like Hannah, there are imposed upon us expectations that we do not meet, sometimes despite our best efforts, all our hope and will. Like Hannah, we have peers for whom it all seems so easy, colleagues who seem to be excelling, sometimes leaving us feeling like failure defines us.
I was looking on a website that actually offers little stories for ministers to insert into their sermons, “illustrations,” we call them. And I looked up “failure.” What I found interested me. To tell you the truth, it dismayed me. There was not one illustration—out of nearly thirty offered—that did not deviate from the general notion: “If at first you don’t succeed…” Not, in the words of the immortal Jerry Seinfeld, that there is anything wrong with that. Effort is noble. Experimentation is bold. Courage in the face of disappointment is admirable. But the truth is: sometimes your womb will not carry a pregnancy. Sometimes someone else will get the fellowship—not you. Sometimes you will disappoint yourself even more that you disappoint those you love and respect. I don’t believe the gospel according to Thomas Edison is much use to us at moments like these. Something more is called for.
For me the turning point of Hannah’s story begins the moment she gets up from the dinner table and heads for the temple to pray. I believe this for two reasons. For one thing, Hannah is being real. She is bitter. She is bargaining. She appears to require sobering up, so out of control is her emotional state. She is baring all before God and man, and her appearance in the temple is a clear demonstration that she is through with trying to go it alone. She reaches out, she reaches up, and she is heard.
The other reason I believe this is a turning point for Hannah is that her action puts her in contact with the priest Eli. Eli is someone whose life has been spent right where he is at this moment—waiting on the Lord, quite literally, in the doorway. Doorways are tremendously potent symbols in biblical literature. A doorway is what is known as “liminal space,” a place of being between, neither in one place nor the other. Eli is at his post in this in between space, which is precisely the place where one waits for God. In this waiting place we experience openness—openness to God, openness to others, openness to a new plan, a new state of being. Hannah too is in liminal space. She is neither here nor there, neither maiden nor mother nor crone. Hannah’s Twilight Zone intersects with Eli’s. A new view is offered. A new possibility is made clear.
For me the grace, the gospel in this story comes at the point of contact—contact with God and contact with another human being. I ask myself, is the story of Hannah simply a story of divine intervention? On one level, certainly—it is one of many biblical stories in which the hand of God is nakedly at work in the birth of an exceptional person. But I don’t think it’s in the realm of the miraculous that we connect with Hannah’s story. Instead, I think we connect through our own experiences: experiences of disappointment or frustrated hope; experiences of reaching out to God in prayer and to those around us in sharing our burdens; experiences of God showing us a way where formerly there was no way; experiences of God staying present with us, in all our bitter ranting, when, in the final analysis, there is no way. Are these miracles? I am not sure. Is reaching out a miracle? Is openness a miracle? Is standing in a doorway, expecting God to show up, a miracle? Is giving thanks—for the hoped- for, expected, the dreaded and everything in between—a miracle?
In what doorway do you stand? Where does the sacred story touch you?