Text: I Sam. 1:4-20
Thesis: Women change the world in many powerful ways, though often unrecognized in
Purpose: To encourage paying attention to small signs of grace
When I was a little boy my mother bought me a nightlight of the boy Samuel praying. It was like translucent ivory, I thought, as I lay in bed and gazed at it, comforted, until my eyelids closed. I have no doubt that that image of Samuel praying was one of the things which lured me toward a career in ministry.
My mother’s strength and dedication in raising my sister and me as a single mom while serving full-time as a minister was a model for what a woman could do, and no doubt contributed to my attraction to a strong woman, from whom I’ve tried to learn the grace of loving children and friends. It was just a couple of years into our marriage, though, that I realized my true place in the world. LaDonna was teaching developmentally delayed children, and I used to bring her lunch once in a while. Whenever I arrived at the classroom the kids greeted me as Mr. LaDonna Hopkins, an identity I’ve enjoyed for 53 years now. It was “identity by connection.”
It’s not surprising that my nightlight was a praying Samuel and not a praying Hannah. But it was Hannah’s prayers, dismissed at first as drunkenness by Eli the priest, that actually opened the doors to a new chapter in the history of Israel. This story of the birth of Samuel, and his mother’s gift of him to God, marks the beginning of Israel’s transition from the freewheeling era of judges to the anointing of their first king. Samuel becomes the successor to Eli, and then, with God’s guidance, he identifies and anoints Saul as Israel’s first king.
So Hannah, like Ruth and Esther about whom we’ve heard in Scripture in recent weeks, is a V.I.W., a Very Important Woman. And what makes her important? She was Sam’s mom. She gives birth. Like Mary, her great gift is conception and mothering, and then giving her child to God. And also like Mary, by the way, the story tells us she breaks forth in a powerful song which becomes the model for Mary’s song, the Magnificat, found in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, celebrating that she is pregnant with the baby Jesus.
This parade of Scriptural VIWs over recent weeks has been inspiring, and maybe kind of surprising, too. Or had you not noticed that most of the famous people in the Bible are men? Christianity has always been mostly a patriarchal faith. I’m proud of the fact that my mother was an ordained minister before ordained women were widely accepted in most branches of Christianity. And I continue to be puzzled, even outraged sometimes, when Christians whose model for Godly living is Jesus, who welcomed everyone, no exceptions, as his close followers and friends, when these Jesus followers find excuses to reject the leadership gifts of women. It is still true that the majority of Christians around the world do not endorse or receive the benefit of ministry by ordained women. Thank God, then, for UCCs—and especially, not incidentally, Sue and Rhonda.
Patriarchal traditions remain formative in our world. Yes, we’ve come a long way Baby, but men continue to hold the levers of power in most arenas. The growth of women leaders has been encouraging, and I was delighted by the increased numbers of women elected in our most recent election.
But overcoming patriarchy will not be easy. Frankly, giving up power is tough. I like to think I’m a pretty egalitarian guy, and I already told you how proud I was of my strong mother and my strong wife. But when LaDonna and I moved to Missouri for her job, and I was the tag along, I found that adjustment really hard. In fact, at a professional conference later that year several of us guys who had all just followed along in moving to our wives’ fancy new jobs sat around whining, and we decided to write a book titled: Whither Thou Goest, Dangit! (Actually, we used a different word from Dangit that I won’t use here today.)
Still, I’m very pleased that women’s opportunities for leadership and exercising their rich gifts have expanded so much in recent years. We all benefit from such progress, even if there are still too many of us men who are downright fearful of losing our male privileges. I’m sad, and even a little ashamed, that my fellow guys so selfishly try to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
Which brings us back to Hannah. It is sadly true that in that culture at that time, opportunities for women like Hannah to play a different role were quite limited. Yes, there were women like Queen Esther, and the judge Deborah. But those opportunities were rare. Women in those days, and even today in many parts of the world, were essentially property. They had no worth apart from the men to whom they were attached—“identity by connection.” That’s why Ruth had to snuggle up to Boaz’s feet in last week’s reading. And it’s why St. Paul’s teachings about the roles of men and women in marriage were actually quite revolutionary, even though they still sound patriarchal to us today. But Paul was saying that men should treat their wives like people, not property. He didn’t say it like we would want him to say it today, but it was a big step forward during his time.
Hannah, though, was doubly oppressed. Not only was she childless at the beginning of our story, but her co-wife (yes, it was a polygymous culture—that’s one of the many things that the folks who want us to do things just like the Bible says manage to ignore), Peninnah, rubbed it in. Peninnah had children, and even though their husband Elkanah liked Hannah better, Peninnah had the favored position because of her children. Now let me say, before we go any further, that I don’t think God makes anyone infertile—or “closed her womb” as the story puts it. Nor do I think that if a woman prays hard enough, especially in the presence of a priest, she will then become fertile. In fact, it might be, as it so often is, a sperm issue. But the story is told that way because that was the worldview of the storyteller’s times.
So Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a boy she called Samuel. At last she had value in that culture’s eyes! But in her desperate faithfulness while still childless, she had made a vow to give up this first child to the temple—a common practice of giving the “first fruits” to God. And so, when Samuel was about 10, Hannah brought him back as a gift to God. It was there in the temple that the boy Samuel prayed, as depicted by my childhood nightlight, and heard God’s voice leading him eventually to choosing Saul as king.
Hannah was blessed with other children after Samuel, but we know nothing more about her than this part of her story we’ve heard today. I choose to believe Hannah is surely a VIW, though, not only because she gave Samuel to the world, but fundamentally because she was a loving mother and a generous model. I think that alone makes her a VIW.
There are multitudes of other VIWs, both mothers and childless women, who’ve played powerful roles in our world. My minister mother, a single parent raiser of my sister and me, was one of those “we can do it all” women that we progressives have idealized since the 60s. My wife has been both an incredible mother and outstanding professional, as my daughter is now doing. But Hannah’s story reminds me of a concern that LaDonna and I have discussed many times. As we progressives have fought to open doors to the leadership of women in all areas of life, I fear that we may have too often diminished the gifts of women who choose to be full-time loving mothers.
Leadership and generosity take many forms, and I would suggest this morning that Hannah’s story reminds us that sometimes that leadership takes the mundane form of changing diapers, teaching children to pray, and offering a hug when injuries come to little ones. I want more women pastors like Sue and Rhonda and my mother. I want more wise women legislators and CEOs and Governors and yes, a woman President of the United States. But I also want loving mothers who embrace their vocation as lovers and trainers of children. For it is from such women that confident and compassionate leaders in all realms of society come. The cool thing now is, unlike in Hannah’s day, women aren’t confined to only one path. Sometimes they can have both—if they take care of themselves and have supportive partners and structures.
So I do celebrate Hannah’s gifts to the world and to our faith. And it would be terrific if they manufactured Hannah nightlights. (I looked on Amazon, by the way, and they don’t.) As we look toward our great national day of Thanksgiving this week, I give deep thanks for the women who have given their lives to birthing and adopting and rearing children, and then giving those children to the world. The name Hannah means “gracious,” and such women are bearers and givers of grace to our world. Hannah’s graceful life, and the graceful lives of countless loving mothers who have embraced that vocation, have offered priceless gifts to us all.
Now that sounded like a nice concluding sentence. But I must say one more thing. Just as we have come to a time when there are countless ways for women to offer their gifts in the world—from being mothers to pastoring congregations to presiding over governments and businesses—we can also expand our understanding of the ways men can exercise our gifts as well. That must include being full-time fathers, and diaper changers, and tender healers of skinned knees and teachers of Bible stories. We men haven’t come quite as far as women in this expansion of our possible identities. “Identity by connection” is still pretty uncomfortable for us, and we probably need women’s help to grow in this realm. I know this is true for me, as I try to grow in my understanding of how to be a father to my now middle-aged daughter and Papa to my 6-year-old granddaughter. Only if we men begin to learn from Hannah and her sisters, only then can we together bring an end to the harassing, and abusing, and exploiting, and dismissing of our sisters.
Hannah, Sam’s mom, is a wonderful model for women, yes; but she is also a magnificent model for men. We all need to pay attention to her graceful gifts.
Paul E. Hopkins