It is October… Halloween is right around the corner… it is a season for spookiness. So I might as well admit this to all of you. I like horror. I like television shows like The Haunting of Bly Manor. I like movies like Us and Hush.
And I need to be a little bit careful here. I do not like being startled. I do not like senseless gore. Jump scares and buckets of blood have their place. But what I like are the movies that make you turn on all of the lights and walk around the house with your back to the wall.
I like the movies that get to that little bit in the back of my brain, and take it by the shoulders, and say, “Did you think the world was comfortable and safe? Think again.”
There are words that follow you around.
Sometimes, they’re stories. I’ve heard bits and pieces of this one a few times. I’ve told bits and pieces of this one a few times. Last year, it was part of a summer sermon series on prayer. The year before that, it was one of our lectionary readings. So, you’ve heard it before. You might even know it.
In the days before there was a king in Israel… in the days before there was a temple to the Lord in Israel… there was a man named Elkanah who had two wives: Hannah and Peninnah. Now, Elkanah loved Hannah, but Hannah had no children. Penninah had children, and Penninah mocked Hannah relentlessly.
And Hannah was distraught. So Hannah went to the shrine at Shiloh, and she prayed.
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 nazarite until the day of his death.
And a nazarite was a person who made a vow to God and who set themselves apart. They didn’t drink alcohol, or eat anything made with grapes, or cut their hair, or go near graves. And while this was usually for a set length of time—like a month or a year—Hannah promised to set her son aside as nazarite until his death.
What she said—what she really said—was, “If you give me a son, O Lord, I will make him a living sacrifice to you.”
And the Lord… agreed to her terms. She had a son and named him Samuel. I’m not going to tell you Samuel’s story here, but he grew up, and he became an important man, and he became a prophet of the Lord. When the people demanded a king, God brought a king to Samuel. And when that king turned bad, God brought a new king to Samuel.
But Hannah didn’t know who her son was going to be. To her, he was nothing more than the son who she had wanted so badly. And that was enough of a miracle. That was more than enough of a miracle. And when he was old enough, Hannah took him to the shrine at Shiloh, and left him there: “For this child I prayed, and the Lord granted my petition. Therefore, as long as Samuel lives, he is given to the Lord.“
I am not a parent. I am definitely not a mom. And I am certainly not a mom who has spent years wishing and hoping and praying for a son… and who then has a son… and who then has to give that son away. I can’t imagine what that took.
The Bible plays it cool. Hannah simply says, “I made a bargain with the Lord. So when this child—when my Samuel—is weaned, I’ll take him to the shrine at Shiloh… and I’ll leave him there forever.” And I can’t imagine how Hannah resisted… how she waited… how she put off fulfilling her promise.
But she had made a promise. She had prayed to the Lord and the Lord had remembered her. So she did what she had promised to do… even if that walk to the shrine at Shiloh meant going further than she wanted to go.
There are words that follow you around.
Sometimes, they’re prayers. After Hannah handed her only son over the priest at Shiloh, she prayed…
My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in my God! The Lord turns the world upside-down. The Lord destroys the weapons of the mighty and gives strength to the weak. The Lord fills the hungry and leaves the rich to hire themselves out for a crumb of bread. The Lord makes poor and makes rich. The Lord raises up the poor from the dust. The Lord lifts the poor up from the ash heap.
And later, a long time after Hannah, a long time after Samuel, a long time after there is a king in Israel, a long time after someone builds a temple to the Lord and it is torn down and someone builds a second one… Mary prayed…
My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. God has shown strength with his arm and scattered the proud. God has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.
If you want to know who God is, then listen to these women. Separated by centuries, they each prayer this prayer in their own way. They each pray this prayer that people pray again and again throughout the Bible and throughout history.
Do you want to know who God is? Even when you’re giving the son who you wanted so badly over to God? Even when you’re being asked to give birth to the God who comes into the world as one of us? Do you want to know who God is all the time?
God is the one who brings the powerful and privileged and prestigious down from their thrones. God is the one who lifts the poor and powerless and pathetic from the ash heap to sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
And that’s the kind of thing that sounds great when you read it in the Bible. That’s the kind of thing that sounds great when you hear it in worship. But…
When Hannah took that walk to Shiloh to give Samuel to the Lord, she was going further than she wanted to go. I don’t know if she had thought that the world was comfortable and safe. But if she did, then God shattered that illusion by answering her prayer.
When Mary had a son and followed him through his life… even to the cross… even to the tomb… even to the resurrection… she was going further than she wanted to do. I don’t know if she had thought that the world was comfortable and safe. But if she did, then God shattered that illusion by coming into the world.
There are words that follow you around.
Sometimes, they’re quotes. I’ve seen people pass this one around a few times. It’s from a book by Annie Dillard titles Teaching a Stone to Talk, and she says, basically…
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. The sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Every Sunday, we gather in this space and we invoke the God who destroys the weapons of the mighty, who gives strength to the weak, who scatters the proud. We praise the God who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. We listen for the God who brings the mighty down from their thrones… even when the mighty are us. And we pray to the God who lifts the powerless up from the ash heap… even when the powerless are us.
We strive to be the people of the God who asks us to come to the edge of our comfort zone… and take steps beyond. Who gets to our souls, and takes them by the shoulders, and says, “Did you think that following me was going to be safe and comfortable? Think again.”
And that is terrifying!
And here’s the thing. I know that, when we hear God’s call to step out past our comfort zones…
…to bring love where there is hatred and pardon where there is offense…
…to bring union where there is discord and truth were there is error…
…to bring faith where there is doubt and hope where there is despair…
…to bring light where there is darkness and joy where there is sadness…
…when we hear that call… sometimes… maybe even most of the time… we turn on all of the lights and walk through the world with our backs against the walls. Because if we do that, then we can keep pretending that we are safe and this is comfortable.
And I know that we do that because I do that. I shy away from loving as I could love, from telling the truth where I could tell the truth, from offering hope where I could offer hope, and all of the other stuff when it is too wild… when it feels too dangerous… when it means that there are buckets of grace.
But I am not called—you are not called, we. are. not. called.—to walk through the world with all of the lights on and our backs against the wall. We are called to be the light. We are called to step away from the sidelines and get in the middle of it all.
And I know that is not always safe. I know that is not always comfortable. I know that can mean taking the things that are most precious to us and handing them over to God.
But then I think of Hannah and the strength that she showed in giving up the son who she wanted so badly. And I think of how little is being asked of me. And I think of what the world could be if I just stepped out of my comfort zone and into the life God is calling me to… what the world could be if we all just stepped out into the life that God is calling us to.
What a wonderful world that would be! Where we step down from our thrones. Where we get up from our ash heaps. Where we are, in the sweet embrace of God, comfortable (really comfortable) and safe (really safe). Where there is no illusion to shatter, because we are the people who God calls us to be.