1 Samuel 1.4-20
The Song of Hannah
Hebrews 10.11-14, 19-25
What if hope and fear is the same thing?
What if our desires, fixated as they can become on things we want- whether for ourselves, our families or our communities- actually become a flashpoint for all of our anxieties? Hope, after all, can torture us when we keep straining towards something that cannot be.
In the story of Hannah we have the story of a woman who received that for which she had long hoped. To be a childless woman in the patriarchal ancient world is to be shamed. Hannah has absorbed the values of her society and holds the dream for a son to be born to her, so returning her status in her polygamous marriage. Her life spent hoping for a child has been marked by sorrow until her son is born.
But the lesson of this story is not to keep hoping until God provides the desires of your heart. We all know that there may be many things we want, and to spend our life focussed on specifically that which we cannot have will lead to fear and despair. Hannah’s song, which we heard instead of the Psalm this morning, is a joyful praise of God who is faithful to the lowliest, feeding the hungry and raising the poor from the dust. It is a forerunner to Mary’s Magnificat which we will encounter in Advent. Hannah, like Mary, gives birth to a child of promise and possibility who will bring about the reign of God. The heart of this story is the prayer of one who knows that despite her lowly status, she is “seen” by God and trusts to God’s loving care to overturn the structures that oppress her. Hannah is the icon of the one who trusts that God does not forget us; new life will be born and new beginnings are possible whatever our situation.
The story I shared in the parish weekly reflection relates to the correlation between hope and fear. The women religious who were becoming so fearful about the closure of their convents had lived for decades in the unfulfilled hopes of new novices coming through their door. Sometimes our hopes are expressions of our desired projection for the future; a future we cannot control. Our wants lead to our worries, which lead to us being closed to any possibilities other than the ones upon which we have set our hearts or on which we rely on for security. Instead of remaining captive to the future they thought they would have, one group of women religious decided to open their doors to sharing community life with young men and women who may not have a religious affiliation but were dreaming of a better world. The project, dubbed by a journalist as “the unlikely alliance between nuns and nones,” (no religious affiliation) established retreat centres in convents where women religious could share their hopes and dreams with millennial justice advocates working for a more compassionate, sustainable and peaceable society. As one Sister put it, “You know it’s the Holy Spirit when you pray for new novices and three bearded men show up on your doorstep on a smoky November night”.
The outcomes have been a generative learning on both sides, fostering diversity, creative community action and genuine love across generational and religious divides. Sometimes successful programs and experiences of the past become caught up with our longings for the future and can get in the way of us seeing the new thing the Spirit may be bringing to birth.
The Gospel reading today challenges us to not be so confident about what will endure and what will not. As the disciples gaze in great wonder at the proportions of the Herodian second temple, surely seeing a permanence of both building and cultic system, Jesus cuts through their assurance;
Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
Most scholars agree Mark’s Gospel was written soon after 70CE, the year of the destruction of the temple. Mark could be reorienting the early Christian community away from the trauma and loss of temple cultic ritual by helping them to make sense of this event through Jesus’ eyes… as birth pangs of the kingdom yet to be fully revealed. Jesus never suggests that God is responsible for such horrors as were experienced in the first century in Jerusalem- human beings are very capable of being agents of their own destruction. Today we still see the calamities Jesus speaks of- war, famine, plagues, natural disasters and other new threats to God’s good creation. If we are to read these as Jesus seems to interpret the destructive forces in his day, then we are being asked not to be fearful, nor to hope in what has been and the security of ways we have known, but to trust in God, open to what the Spirit is doing and be ready to join in. God’s kingdom is always breaking through if only we have the vision to see it. This is the kingdom of the God sung about by Hannah and Mary and described so well in our Collect as a “welcoming refuge for the outcast, and upholder of justice for the oppressed”.
Growth, change, and the coming of new life are a painful process. When we sit in the between times, it is easy to become fretful with worry or fixated on a hope for things as we would have them be. Our fears and our hopes can both become barriers to the Spirit when they are attached to things or ways of being that we may need to release.
True hope in Christ is something quite different. It is the hope when, instead of clinging to our own desires, we seek first God’s kingdom- that upside down, best destiny for humanity and all creation where the oppressed are raised up, the hungry fed and all life honoured. It is the hope that we can be part of the birthing process of the loving reign of God in a world of peace and justice. It is a hope not fixated on a destination but firmly planted in the here and now, with the resources we have, amongst the people in whose company we are blessed to travel this life. It is the hope born of the deep knowledge that Christ is with us.
So we are told, do not fear and do not cling to only what we have known. God is doing a new thing amongst us and we need only be open to the Spirit and join in where the joy and the energy leads.
(In a moment you will be asked to fill out the stewardship forms you have received as a way of tuning in and acknowledging where the energy is for you and in what ways you feel called to be a collaborator with the Spirit at work here)
Whatever we have, it is enough. Whoever we are- we are enough.
We give ourselves to this task of discernment, to see the movement of the Spirit in our own lives and in the life of our community, that we may know the joy of being co-creators of the kingdom in this time and place.