A Shiloh Story: the Beginning of an End
(I Samuel, chapters 1 and 2)
Sermon date 11/15/2015
G. Malcomb Sinclair refers to this story as a “Shiloh Story.” Shiloh was one of the ancient places of worship for the Hebrews. It was important in the days when judges oversaw the communal life. Sinclair writes, “It is a Shiloh story, thought to come from that ancient place of meeting and worship that is no more.”
“…that ancient place of meeting and worship that is no more.” This morning’s passage starts the story of the transition from the time that Israel was ruled by judges to the establishment of a monarchy. It is the beginning of a major shift in the way that the Israelites were organized. It struck me, that this is the start of a sort of reformation – a re-forming. I wondered if it was one of those that modern scholars note happen every 500 to 600 years. And, if my Biblical time-line is accurate at all, this fits the pattern.
Years ago, I ran into the mailman as I was walking down the street. Since it was a small town, he knew that I was the pastor at the Presbyterian Church. “Did you know,” he asked me, “that they may have found the ark of the covenant?” This was a few years after the first Indiana Jones movie had come out that focused on the Ark of the Covenant as a source of power to be sought. The mailman seemed to think that this discovery would bode well for Christianity, for our place in modern society. Well, much to his disgust, I wasn’t really interested. “I think the Biblical witness tells us that God moved on from that Ark,” I said. We went our separate ways!
God moves on. The Israelites had been organized one particular way. But the Book of Judges ends, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Even their religious leaders, including Eli and his sons, failed to serve God well. So, God began the long process of re-making, re-shaping, and re-forming the Israelites.
The seeds of that reformation are sown in this morning’s story. It’s just the seeds. Hannah’s story sets in motion what will need to happen for there to be a king in Israel.
I think it’s amazing that the Biblical story includes this story of Hannah. Last week, we had the story of Naomi and Ruth. In that story an outsider – a female outsider—got woven into the genealogy of the great dynasty of David. Boaz married Ruth, the Moabite, and she bore him a son, Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of King David. Here, we have a barren woman who sets in motion the events that led to the establishment of Israel’s first and second kings, Saul and David.
It was interesting to read commentaries on this story. It was a reminder that all commentaries reflect, to a degree, the bias of the one exploring the passage. All the scholars noted the difficult situation for a woman who was barren. Scholar Martin B. Copenhaver summed it up well when we said, “In such a patriarchal culture, childbearing was a woman’s only unique ability. To be unable to conceive was cause for great shame.” The scholars begin to interpret the story differently when they considered Hannah’s husband’s response to her infertility. “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Frank Yamada sees these as “words of consolation.” But goes on to note that such words cannot change her barrenness or take away that deep sense of shame. Copenhaver wonders if what Elkanah offered were really words of consolation or words that dismissed her pain. He compared it to being told to “count one’s blessings” when life is difficult. Copenhaver spoke of a yearly grief support group. One session was devoted to reflecting on statements that were meant to be supportive and comforting but, instead, were “singularly unhelpful and irritating in the extreme.” Both, however, note that Eli’s response to Hannah’s silent prayers was callous and thoughtless. He leapt to judgement against her and assumed that she was drunk.
For me, the most thought provoking reflections on this story came from the Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop. She says Hannah is “a meaning maker, not simply in what she points to, but in her own image, her own personage...she reveals an iconic spiritual sensitivity to the ways that God is involved in and concerned about her life.”
Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s not a high holy day that I find particularly helpful because of its focus on “kingship”. We know in the world’s history and even in Biblical history that “kings,” “monarchs,” those who have relatively complete authority over nations are often guilty of abuse – of their position, of their power, of their people. We are told, in the gospels, that the people around Jesus were hoping for a new “king,” hoping for a messiah who would take an earthly “throne” of sorts – and set things right.
Every time people pushed that agenda, however, Jesus resisted. He refused to take up an earthly “kingship.” He was not interested in the power that can so easily be corrupted.
Hannah, this barren woman, this woman whose world despised her, poured out her heart to God. She promised that if she had a son, this son would be consecrated to God – for his entire life. And God responded. Hannah had a son, Samuel (Consecrated One.) At a very young age, Samuel began to serve the Lord by serving Eli. Eventually, Samuel replaced Eli. It was Samuel, the priest, who named God’s choice for king – first Saul, and then David. (I did wonder what it must have been like to have been Samuel – to have had a parent who chose even before he was born the path of his life! A different sermon, perhaps!)
Shoop reflects, “The monarchy is born out of barrenness, anguish, and uninhibited entanglement with God’s faithfulness. God’s character is full of grace, full of compassion, and audacious enough to make fertile what is barren and make abundant what is scarce.” She concludes that this story reminds us that graced existence has many layers: barrenness, fertility, grief, cultural limitations, surprise, pain, promise. God’s grace is not merely in the easy, in what the world labels as success. God’s grace permeates the reality of the world which human beings inhabit. (This was a message I needed to hear this week.)
Hannah’s honest outpouring of grief is the beginning of the transformation of Israel from a group of tribes to a monarchy. She sowed the seeds for this ancient reformation.
Sinclair focused less on Hannah’s story and more on the fact that it takes place in Shiloh – an ancient place of worship that is no more. He suggested that we find ourselves in “Shiloh” these days – wondering about the future of the church. I’ve encountered so many churches that are paralyzed by their grief that what they’ve always known is fading away. The inclination is to work harder at being who they’ve always been. There is anger. There is fear. There are accusations that “someone is responsible” for their pain: families that no longer set aside Sunday mornings, sports that seem to encroach on our sacred time, presbyteries or other denominational entities that “close churches” or challenge churches, pastors that don’t do what pastors of old did.
I am reminded that we tend to think of God as the unchanging God. We think of the institutions of God as rocks that are to endure the challenges of the world – the bulwarks that provide constancy in a world which changes. We forget that the stories of God point to the Great Innovator – the One who looks at the world we inhabit, and leads us toward new ways of being, ways of being that fit the times and the circumstances.
Hannah’s story tells us that God’s new creation, God’s transformation is never instantaneous. She was there at the beginning of a new era. But she didn’t see it emerge in its totality. She certainly didn’t see the fruits of her faith as Israel moved from a tribal society to a nation with a king.
A few weeks ago we celebrated All Saints Day. One of the images that I find helpful is to think about the stream – the river – of saints that spans the ages. If we travel a river or stream we know that each place has a beauty all its own. The river is never the same – either geographically or chronologically. Mighty rivers have modest headwaters. Raging streams become, over centuries and centuries, placid rivers that meander through plains. Rocky landscapes are tamed by the power of water. We do not stand in the same part of the river that those who came before us stood. Those who follow will also find themselves in a “different” place. We must find what it means to be God’s people in our particular contexts – both geographical and chronological. And, our particular context is one of upheaval. Many look at this world in which we live and see barrenness, death, and destruction. That does not mean that God is not here!
Copenhaven reflects that the Biblical story invites us to be sympathetic to Hannah – but maybe that’s not so easy in real life. In the US, we speak of compassion burn out. Many have noted the generosity that is demonstrated when there are catastrophic events. But, the interest fades. Someone I knew spearheaded a mission trip to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. He did it quickly – while people were still aware and concerned, he told me. Copenhaven says that Hannah’s persistence could be wearing. “She is needy, dramatic, challenging, and insistent.” She won’t go away. She hangs out in the worship center at Shiloh. She persists in her pleas to God. Copenhaven says we should remember the story of the woman who wore the judge out with her plea for justice. “When we are reminded that God grants the pleas of the importune,” he says, “then enduring persistence begins to look something like a spiritual discipline.”
Hannah poured out her grief – she persisted in it. It did not paralyze her. Instead, it drove her to a brutal honesty in God’s presence. She expressed a deep trust in God’s care, concern, and even in God’s justice in the midst of a system that treated her unfairly. And it was out of her persistence that transformation began to occur. In the short term, God opened her womb and she had a son. Her shame was taken away. Long term, she was an integral part of the journey toward a new way of being the people of God.
In the bulletin, for reflection, I have this prayer from the streets. There are echoes of Hannah’s prayer in it.
[Put your ear next to me, Lord,
I just want you to hear me and talk to me
‘Cause I ain’t got much.
Just remember I try to be like you.
You are my man
So I ask for your help.
Make me happy when I’m mixed up inside.
We know you don’t hold nothing against us
And you listen and hear us when we talk to you
And don’t push us away.
So when we got troubles
We can call on you.
Help us remember you is only one
And everybody was made by you
And had sure better know it
And you are the only God.
Show me the right side of the street to walk on
So I can walk with you and even trust you
And not be afraid to say it
‘Cause your love is just great.
When it seems like everybody is against me
And nothing goes right
And people is out to get me
Help me to know we is still friends
And that your love is here.
That’s what helps me have heart.
So “give me some skin,” Lord,
Then everybody will know where we stand.]
Sometimes, the persistence that invites God’s people to a new way of being comes from the voices that we seldom hear. It comes through the actions of those we might easily dismiss. Perhaps, the church, the established church, sees its demise. But there are still prayers being said, prayers that refuse to be silenced, prayers that proclaim a deep trust in God despite the challenges and injustices of the world in which we live. Shilohs come and go. Even the Jerusalem temple is no more. If our trust is in the institutions that point to God rather than in God, we will despair, we will be disappointed. God’s reign comes in ways we often overlook. It is born not out of the powers of this world, but out of its very brokenness.