The Real Housewives of Shiloh

1 Samuel 2:1-9

2 Then Hannah prayed:

My heart rejoices in the Lord.

    My strength rises up in the Lord!

    My mouth mocks my enemies

        because I rejoice in your deliverance.

2 No one is holy like the Lord—

    no, no one except you!

    There is no rock like our God!

3 Don’t go on and on, talking so proudly,

    spouting arrogance from your mouth,

    because the Lord is the God who knows,

        and he weighs every act.

4 The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,

    but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power!

5 Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread,

    but the ones who were starving are now fat from food!

    The woman who was barren has birthed seven children,

        but the mother with many sons has lost them all!

6 The Lord! He brings death, gives life,

        takes down to the grave, and raises up!

7 The Lord! He makes poor, gives wealth,

    brings low, but also lifts up high!

8 God raises the poor from the dust,

    lifts up the needy from the garbage pile.

    God sits them with officials,

    gives them the seat of honor!

The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord;

    he set the world on top of them!

9 God guards the feet of his faithful ones,

    but the wicked die in darkness

        because no one succeeds by strength alone.

Last week I pitched a new reality series, The Real Housewives of Bethlehem, starring Ruth, Orpah, and Naomi. This week’s spinoff is The Real Housewives of Shiloh, featuring two women married (at the same time) to one guy: Hannah and Peninnah are married to a real catch, Elkanah. Their household is a nightmare. Hannah is without children, but her husband loves her; Peninnah has several kids, but her husband does not care for her. And Peninnah uses her status as the fertile wife to make Hannah’s life miserable. Not the kind of home you want to be invited to for Sunday lunch after church.

Hannah is the wife of a total idiot, who, when he hears his wife’s crying due to lack of children and Peninnah’s teasing, says, “Hannah, why are you crying? “Why won’t you eat? Why are you so sad? Aren’t I worth more to you than ten sons?” This is the kind of comment that could fuel great discussions in couples counseling. At least he could have said, “Aren't you worth more to me than ten sons?” Hannah’s answer is undoubtedly a hard NO. Carrying her grief to the place of worship, Hannah cries in prayer before the Lord. Mouthing a prayer but not speaking so as not to disturb others and draw even more attention to her shame than she receives at home, the priest, Eli, another real winner of a guy, says to her: “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” “No sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!” Eli responded, “Then go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him.” “Please think well of me, your servant,” Hannah said. “Then the woman went on her way, ate some food, and wasn’t sad any longer.”

In her prayer, Hannah promises God that if she has a son she will raise him to be a nazirite, a person set aside for the Lord’s service. They are not allowed to drink alcohol or cut their hair. In the Book of Judges, Samson is a nazirite; indeed his mother, was also infertile for a time, is a nazirite herself. After some time, Hannah does become pregnant, gives birth to a son, and names him Samuel, meaning God has heard. After three years, she delivers the boy to Eli, to be raised in the house of the Lord. “Excuse me, sir!” Hannah said. “As surely as you live, sir, I am the woman who stood here next to you, praying to the Lord. I prayed for this boy, and the Lord gave me what I asked from him. So now I give this boy back to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” She waited and pleaded for a son, and now that he is a toddler, she has to release him to God’s service. For her faithfulness, the text says God rewarded her with multiple sons and daughters in the coming years. Every year she would return to the worship space, bringing Samuel a new robe. Imagine her guessing with pride what size to sew the new garment, and the joy she must feel to present it to her son at her annual pilgrimage.

In her book How to Begin When Your World Is Ending: A Spiritual Field Guide to Joy Despite Everything, Rev Molly Phinney Baskette describes a ritual her church uses for those interested in becoming members of the congregation. They gather at a home, share appetizers and beverages, and she leads them through a process where each person shares their faith journey so far. She tells them,

 Your faith story is not your church story. It is much bigger than that, and might only be a little about church. It also is probably not a sweet, easy story. To tell it, you might use geographic motifs like the Bible does: mountaintop experiences, the valley of the shadow of death, a valley of dry bones…The stories that get told amongst our new members reveal that the faith journey is not a straight road, but a spiral. We don’t move up a gentle slope at a consistent pace toward a God with open arms. We find God, we lose God, or we feel that God has lost us. We spiral back to the same obsessions, fears, addictions, and quandaries… Most of us will not get through life unscathed. Resiliency comes not just from suffering, but the type of suffering that finds a broader perspective and the right supports to help us decide what to do next.

Hannah is one of many biblical women who struggled with infertility: Sarah, Hagar, Elizabeth, the unnamed mother of Samson. She is more than a baby incubator; her roller coaster ride of conflict at home, disconnected spouse, lack of spiritual support, and the misery of enduring all this on her own must not be reduced to biological function. Hannah’s roller coaster eventually comes to a satisfying conclusion- a faithful life leads to abundant joy. For millions of other women in contemporary life, the challenges continue. Some are unable to conceive, so they must endure expensive IVF treatments. Others cannot afford the option. Some conceive, but do not have health insurance or access to prenatal care. Others suffer from miscarriages or grieve stillborn children or adoptions that are not realized.

How do we offer support for those grieving the loss- or never realized promise- of children? A group of women who meet at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas called An Invisible Sisterhood. They come together for mutual support and encouragement. Many years ago I served as an on-call chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Parkland’s Newborn nursery discharges numbered 10,908 in 2022; its NICU staff cares for more than 1,300 newborns each year, averaging about 100 newborns every month, and their Women’s clinic visits totaled 237,545 last year. When I offered pastoral support at the hospital nearly three decades ago, it was not unusual for me to be called to the Neo natal ICU to visit with parents of a newborn child. Occasionally those were babies who did not survive the birth process. A time or two I was asked to baptize a tiny infant who had died. We would offer prayer and the staff would take a picture of mom holding her tiny child, allowing space to grieve the loss of all the possibilities the promised life once contained.

An Anglican Church resource on ministering to mothers, or perspective mothers, grieving the loss of children or their ability to have children says this: “[God] invites us to voice our grief and anger, secure in the faith that a compassionate God hears our cries and will respond. The divine action may not always be what we hope for or expect; nonetheless it is important for our relationship with God to voice our honest reactions, even anxiety, grief, anger, and doubt. Throughout Scripture, we hear God's people crying and lamenting. God hears the cries of the despairing and is present throughout the turmoil of grief.” Psalm 69 is a psalm of lament, the writer bearing their soul to the God who hears all of our prayers- even, perhaps especially, those prayed in moments of despair and heartbreak:

13 But me? My prayer reaches you, Lord,

    at just the right time.

God, in your great and faithful love,

    answer me with your certain salvation!

14 Save me from the mud!

    Don’t let me drown!

    Let me be saved from those who hate me

    and from these watery depths!

15 Don’t let me be swept away by the floodwaters!

    Don’t let the abyss swallow me up!

    Don’t let the pit close its mouth over me!

16 Answer me, Lord, for your faithful love is good!

    Turn to me in your great compassion!

17 Don’t hide your face from me, your servant,

    because I’m in deep trouble.

    Answer me quickly!

18 Come close to me!

    Redeem me!

    Save me because of my enemies!

19 You know full well the insults I’ve received;

    you know my shame and my disgrace.

    All my adversaries are right there in front of you.

20 Insults have broken my heart.

    I’m sick about it.

I hoped for sympathy,

    but there wasn’t any;

    I hoped for comforters,

    but couldn’t find any.

21 They gave me poison for food.

    To quench my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

Hannah’s story is not meant to be understood as the only result of faithful women longing for a child. As much as she and other biblical women who struggled to bear children and ultimately did are often portrayed as baby incubators, they are also often lifted up as examples of perfect devotion- God provided kids for them because they were perfect- leaving millions of women feeling as though God had abandoned them in their need. If only they had tried harder, prayed harder, loved harder. But guilt and shame- inflicted by ourselves or if we receive it from others- is not a path for healing or restoration. It only leads to despair. Yet we learn from Hannah’s story, and the stories of faithful women in every time have endured the varied challenges of becoming mothers, that despair is not the final stop on the roller coaster. Psalm 69 ends this way:

30 I will praise God’s name with song;

    I will magnify him with thanks

31     because that is more pleasing to the Lord than an ox,

    more pleasing than a young bull with full horns and hooves.

32 Let the afflicted see it and be glad!

    You who seek God—

    let your hearts beat strong again

33     because the Lord listens to the needy

        and doesn’t despise his captives.

And Hannah’s own song in 1 Samuel 2, sung after the birth and dedication of her son, says this: “My heart rejoices in the Lord.

    My strength rises up in the Lord!

    My mouth mocks my enemies

        because I rejoice in your deliverance.

    No one is holy like the Lord—

    no, no one except you!

    There is no rock like our God!”

Today is the 2nd Sunday of Lent. We are on a journey- 40 days in the wilderness of spiritual discipline and growth. We’re focusing on the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Joy. Joy is different from happiness; happiness is a fleeting emotion, subject to various whims. But joy endures. “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Jesus said, “When a woman gives birth, she has pain because her time has come. But when the child is born, she no longer remembers her distress because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. In the same way, you have sorrow now; but I will see you again, and you will be overjoyed. No one takes away your joy. In that day, you won’t ask me anything. I assure you that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Up to now, you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you will receive so that your joy will be complete” (John 16:21-24).

Our lenten journey through the wilderness is illustrated in the purple graphic in your bulletin. Following our receiving the Lord’s Supper this morning, we will sing together the hymn Stay with Us. Technically it’s an Easter hymn, recalling the walking of the resurrected Jesus with the disciples making their way to the village Emmus. But Jesus walks with us during Lent as well! When we sing together in a few minutes, notice the words of the 4th stanza: 

Stay with us,

Walk with us,

Talk with us, till we behold

A joyful life You will unfold

The hymn speaks of the promise of faith. It’s not a promise to never suffer, or for every prayer to be realized as we wish. It’s a promise that no matter what journey we walk, Christ walks it with us. We are never alone. Even in the midst of pain and sorrow, a joyful life is possible. Every step of her journey to motherhood, God walked alongside Hannah. Through every challenge, God’s presence was there. Joy is found walking with God through whatever wilderness we find ourselves in.

Let us pray.

A Song of Christ's Goodness- Anselm of Canterbury (lived 1000 years ago)

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; ,:.

you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.

Often you weep over our sins and our pride, ':·

tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.

You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, ':·

in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.

Jesus, by your dying, we are born to new life; ':·

by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.

Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness; ':·

through your gentleness, we find comfort in fear. 

Your warmth gives life to the dead, •:-

your touch makes sinners righteous.

Lord Jesus, in your mercy, heal us; •:-

in your love and tenderness, remake us.

In your compassion, bring grace and forgiveness, •:-

for the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.