Tune My Heart
January 20, 2013
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “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 Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
(1 Samuel 1: 4-20)
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace…
I’m going to start off this morning with a question for the ladies: how many of you have seen the movie 27 Dresses?
It was pretty decent, right, for a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy? Not bad.
All right, men, how about you? How many of you have seen the movie 27 Dresses? Not as many. Tell me this, honestly: how many of you would publicly admit it if you had?
Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought. But you all know that expression, “always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” right? Well, spoiler alert, that pretty much sums up the plot of the whole movie, so you can skip it if you want and just go watch Skyfall if that’s more your speed.
But I bring up that phrase—“always a bridesmaid, never a bride”—because that was pretty much my little sister’s life for the better part of her young adulthood. I don’t know that she had twenty-seven bridesmaids dresses in her closet, but by the time she hit thirty, that poor girl was getting close. And I can tell you that at first, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, early on, picking out those dresses and getting the shoes dyed to match was actually kind of exciting. My sister would show up for a fitting and daydream about what sort of dresses she’d make her friends wear at her wedding. Then she’d arrive at the church all dolled up and ready, hoping that her Prince Charming might be amongst the guests—but for whatever reason, P.C. never showed.
So my sister got serious. She pored over advice columns in magazines, she went to therapy, she even read The Rules. (You all remember The Rules? Ugh!) She tried blind dating, speed dating, and dating services, all to no avail.
But still the invitations on the nice paper kept coming.
Few things in life are worse than having to go to a big party and make merry when you feel blue, but when that party is all about celebrating that someone else has found the one thing you wish you had, it can be excruciating.
God bless her, though, my sister is a good friend, so she’d go anyway. Only, after a time, she wised up. When yet another bride to be, a lovely young woman by the name of Shannon, asked her to be in her wedding party, my sister agreed, but she did so this time with her eyes wide open. She’d buy the dress and the shoes and she’d go to the party, but she wasn’t going to go with any expectations. She wasn’t going to try to make something happen. There would be no more mental note taking about her own nuptials, no anxious scanning of the crowd for Mr. Right. She was just going to go and be her own fabulous, single self with no agenda whatsoever, because, as my sister said the night before that wedding, “You know what, I’m all right. I’ve got a good life, and I like who I am. I’m okay. I’m just going to go to this thing and have a good time.”
And she did. Sis arrived at the reception, sized up the wedding party, and said, “All right, who’s single here?” A nice guy by the name of Sean said, “Um…I am.” And my sister, tossing those awful rules to the wind, said, “Well, then, I’m hanging out with you.” And they did. And it was good. And I’ll come back to them in a bit, because their story isn’t finished.
But first, I want to talk to you about Hannah, the woman from our Hebrew scriptures Bible story for today.
As you may have noticed from the reading, Hannah, like my sister, had to go to a big party, only she had to go to this big party every year—and it was awful.
The party took place at Shiloh. It was actually a great feast day, a holy day, a holiday, much like our Thanksgiving. After the harvest was gathered in, but before people settled down for the winter, each household was to gather up their tithe—a tenth of whatever grain, new livestock, wine, oil, or anything else they had accumulated or made during that year— and make a pilgrimage to the tabernacle in Shiloh, where they would offer their tithes to the Lord.
The priests would take the gifts and offerings and burn the meat on the altar—essentially, cook it. Then, after the priest took a portion of that meat for himself and the temple staff, each family would take the rest and go and sit down and eat together. As it says in Deuteronomy:
“You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain, or new wine, or oil, or the first-born of your herd or flock …But you shall eat them before the LORD your God … you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and”—here’s the kicker— “you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings” (Deut. 12:17-18).
Did you catch that? “You shall rejoice.”
After a long year of work and toil, it was time to party. This was an event, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, when everyone was supposed to be happy. But all that happiness only made Hannah more miserable, because Hannah was already miserable, because Hannah couldn’t seem to have children. Unlike her husband’s second wife, Peninnah, who had so many children we don’t even get a head count, Hannah was barren.
It might have been okay the first few times they’d gone up to Shiloh. Hannah probably even helped with Peninnah’s kids, all the while dreaming of what she’d do with her own, but her own never seemed to come along. And so Hannah had to watch year after year at Shiloh as her husband made sacrifices to thank God for all his children, knowing that none of those children were hers. She had to watch, year after year, as her husband would carve off a huge chunk of meat for Peninnah to share at the feast with all her little ones, and then sit there in shame as her husband carefully cut off a delicate little share for her and her alone. He was a kind man, Elkanah, and out of his love for Hannah he’d always give her a double portion, but I bet his generosity only made her feel that much worse. I bet Hannah sat there feeling a little more helpless and little more worthless as each year went by.
Until the year finally came when she just couldn’t take it any more.
All the laughter and the cheer, the children running up and down, the people singing, Peninnah’s smug smiles and her own grief, finally drive Hannah from the table. As soon as her duty is fulfilled, she runs off to the tabernacle in tears and falls down before God and pours out her heart before the throne. She weeps. She bargains. She rocks back and forth and prays with her whole body, her whole being, till her tears run dry and there are no words left to say.
And then Eli shuffles in. He finds her so distraught that the old priest assumes at first that she must be drunk from all the revelry, and so he says either the least pastoral or most pastoral thing any pastor has ever said: “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”
Least pastoral, perhaps, because he’s obviously completely oblivious to this woman’s pain, but perhaps most pastoral because his unjust accusation arouses a righteous anger within Hannah—an anger that finally helps her break through the fog of her grief and distress.
“No, my lord,” she says with great indignation. “I’m not drunk. I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
Did you catch that? Did you hear what Hannah said about herself, because thanks to Eli’s accusation, I think Hannah finally did.
“Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman…”
Hannah tells Eli that she is not worthless…and in her effort to convince him, I think she finally convinces herself. Something shifts in Hannah, right in the middle of this story. Eli’s accusation breaks her out of her self-pity. “I have good reason to weep,” says she, “every reason to be as vexed as I am anxious, but I am not worthless.”
Hannah at Shiloh, much like my sister before that wedding, has a major epiphany. In that moment, she comes to realize that, although she may not have the one thing in all the world she wants most, she doesn’t have to let what she lacks define her. She realizes that, child or no child, she is still worth something in God’s eyes and therefore still worth something in her own, that her life is precious whether she is a mother or not.
To paraphrase the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Hannah comes to understand that “just to live is a blessing, just to be is holy.” And there’s a word for that sort of realization, a name to describe that kind of understanding. I think what Hannah discovered in Shiloh at that moment, and what my sister experienced before that wedding a few years ago, was a little something called gratitude. Each woman found that she was grateful, in spite of what she lacked, not just for who she was, but for the sheer fact that she was. And each allowed her gratitude for what was, rather than her desire for what wasn’t, to become the driving force in her life.
Friends, I know we talk a lot about gratitude at this time of year, but know that gratitude, at least as I understand it, isn’t just a neat synonym for being thankful for all the good stuff. Gratitude isn’t the warm, fuzzy feeling you experience when you finally get everything you want—because the truth is, you never do. No, gratitude is something you tap into, deep within yourself, that helps you find peace and hope no matter what.
Eli told Hannah to go in peace that day and prayed that the Lord would grant her a child, but Hannah, thanks to her newfound sense of gratitude, left at peace already. She left Shiloh filled with peace long before her child was born. The Bible tells us that she “went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.”
Hannah didn’t know what the future would hold. She had no idea if she’d ever have a baby. But thanks to that moment in Shiloh, she had found peace in the present, and that peace is what carried her home. That peace was what enabled her to start loving her husband again, with joy rather than desperation. And that peace remained hers before and even after her little Samuel was finally born.
Likewise, my sister went to that wedding. She talked and danced and shared a few drinks with that guy named Sean. She wasn’t trying to be what she thought he might want her to be. She wasn’t trying to make something happen. The truth is, she wasn’t trying at all. She was just being herself, because she’d finally learned to be grateful for who she was, and at the end of the night he not only asked for her number, he actually dialed it the very next day.
I officiated at my sister and Sean’s wedding two years ago and baptized their first child last month. I couldn’t be happier for them.
I’m glad Hannah finally had Samuel, and I’m thrilled that my sister married Sean, but what is truly precious about each one’s journey is this: it wasn’t getting what they thought they wanted that made them whole. The sense of gratitude they experienced for who they already were and what they already had—long before either Samuel or Sean showed up— helped them realize they were whole already.
And that is my hope for all of you this day, this week, and all throughout this festive holiday season. As you gather for various celebrations, I know this holiday will be happier for some of you than for others. I know that, for many of you, there will be faces missing around the table that you desperately wish were there. I know that, for others of you, there will be faces around the table that you desperately wish were missing.
I also know that, for some of you, it will be a challenge to count your blessings given the struggles, sorrows, and disappointments in your life. But know this: although you cannot change the past or control the future, any more than you can force yourself or anyone else to be happy—no matter what your circumstances, you can still practice gratitude.
Gratitude is not a feeling reserved for those times when everything is okay and all is well. Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean that you stop working or yearning for those things you want or need. It’s simply about taking the time to pause, no matter where you are in your journey, and give thanks for the journey itself. Give thanks for what you do have. Give thanks for who you are and that you are. Gratitude is the simple realization that even when it’s hard, “just to be is still a blessing, just to live is holy.”
Thanks be to God.
O Lord, as we prepare to celebrate and give thanks this year, may we find it in our hearts to be grateful no matter what. May we praise you for what we can do and praise you in spite of what we can’t. May we thank you for what is and what isn’t, for what is going well and for what is not. May we thank you for what brings us joy and even for that which brings us grief, for if our grief testifies to anything, it testifies to the depths of our love. Bless us and keep us, dear God, we pray, and turn our hearts ever and always toward your all encompassing light, you who are our creator and savior, our redeemer and friend. Amen and amen.
- Sarah Buteux
My soul is deprived of peace,
I have forgotten what happiness is;
I tell myself my future is lost,
all that I hoped for from the Lord.
The thought of my homeless poverty
is wormwood and gall;
Remembering it over and over
leaves my soul downcast within me.
But I will call this to mind,
as my reason to have hope:
The favors of the Lord are not exhausted,
his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning,
so great is his faithfulness.
My portion is the Lord, says my soul;
therefore will I hope in him.
Good is the Lord to one who waits for him,
to the soul that seeks him;
It is good to hope in silence
for the saving help of the Lord.
- Lamentations 3:17-26
Rev. Sarah Buteux