1 Samuel 2:1–10
Philip K. Dick wrote a science fiction short story titled Paycheck. They made a movie of it a few years ago, but they put Ben Affleck in it and it was horrible. In the original short story, a man named Jennings agrees to work for a company that creates time machines. He sees into his future for the project, but the company is crooked and forces him to have his memory wiped at the end of it. When the project is complete, his memory is indeed wiped, but then he is told that during the project, he willfully chose to forgo his massive paycheck for just a few random items, which mean nothing to him. So he ends the project empty-handed, except for these few trinkets.
Through the course of the story, these items become important as he is able to use them to escape dangerous situations and dangerous people. It’s almost as if he knew something that no one else did. In the end, he realizes that he has the key to a safe deposit box that holds papers that make him able to become part owner in the whole company! He gave up one paycheck, in order to gain a great deal more!
How did this happen? Of course, he had traveled through time, seen what would happen, and changed the course of time in order to suit him instead of the company. His future self knew something that he told his present self that made a relatively simple sacrifice worth every penny.
In today’s Scripture passage, Hannah has made the same deal. It’s a little less science fiction-y, but let me try and make the point that Hannah is in much the same place.
First, the background. Hannah cannot have children and it causes her great grief and pain. A familiar theme already, and we’ve only been on this narrative journey for six weeks. Whenever she and her family go up to the Temple to worship, her rival abuses her mercilessly, and she prays in worship for a child. Until one day, when the priest Eli sees her praying. And she is praying so fervently and emotionally, he assumes that she is drunk, and chastises her.
Of course, if you know the story, you see the irony here. Because Eli probably ought to look a little closer to home. In the next chapter, the passage tells us that Eli’s sons, also priests, have been basically stealing from the people when they come to worship. They would use their power to steal the offering from the worshippers. Often times, these were women and men who had very little and offered what they had. But then Eli’s sons would come and take the offering from them for themselves. Steal the boiling meat out of the pot. Threaten force and physical harm if they didn’t give it over. They even used their power and position to suggest that God wanted the worshippers to give them the meat raw instead of burned in the offering. These guys were having a barbeque every night, at the expense of the honest worshippers, and Eli did nothing to stop them. The poor were taken advantage of. The rich and powerful flourished. And Eli was worried because Hannah was praying so fervently, he thought she had been drinking too much. Talk about missing the point!
At the heart of the story is this tragedy of a faithful woman. Unable to have a child. Abused by her rival. Her husband cannot do enough to bring her peace. And the preacher is yelling at her to lay off the bottle! If that weren’t bad enough, when her fortunes change and she is finally able to get pregnant, in her faithfulness, she offers the child to the service of the Lord…supervised by none other than old Eli, turning a blind eye to the injustice in his own household. At some level, the story is one of despair…Hannah’s blessed child is sacrificed to the service of a broken system, at the mercy of unjust priests and their complicit father.
And yet, Hannah sings!
For a whole ten verses, she sings! And her song is a prayer of thanksgiving. It starts out as a prayer of thanksgiving for her circumstances, but it begins to grow. Her song become a doxology—a song of praise—for all of the things that God has ever done, and WILL ever do! God will make the weak strong. God will make the poor rich. God will allow the barren to have children. Those who are hungry will be “fat with spoil.” God will bring the poor into the $1000-a-plate political fundraiser. God will give the poor a seat in first class. God will reverse the systems, meaning those who have it all now will be in the bread lines. Those who the rich deride as “welfare queens” will actually become queens, and reign over the rich and privileged and arrogant, who will have to come to them for a handout. Scholar Kathryn Schifferdecker suggests that Hannah’s song is the sermon of a prophet. Both forthtelling, or preaching, as all of the Old Testament prophets do…and foretelling, seeing the future at the hands of a loving and just God. The God of Israel turns the world upside down and reverses our expectations for power and shows what it means to have real power!
Here’s where Jennings and the time machine comes in. You see, God acted in Hannah’s life to reverse the system of abuse, rejection, and shame. But she doesn’t stop there. It is as if she has seen the future, and knows what’s coming. Which is why she can commit this unthinkable act of leaving her beloved child in the hands of this unjust priest. Because Hannah knows that she isn’t just leaving him with Eli. In fact, the end of chapter one says, “(Hannah) left him there for the Lord.” She didn’t leave him there for Eli. She didn’t leave him there for his “scoundrel” sons or the corrupt system. She didn’t leave him there even for her own glory and honor (“wow, look at what she did…isn’t she pretty special!”) She left him there for the Lord. Because she had seen God’s future and knew that Samuel’s service would not be wasted. She knew that her current sacrifice would bring about a better world. Why, because she had seen it. The prophet had had a vision! She had prayed and wept and endured abuse for this child, and as soon as he was weaned, she put him into the service of the exact system that was causing all this trouble. But, of course, isn’t that the point? Because she had seen her vision…because she had seen the future, she knew that she could give up her greatest possession because she knew that God would use him to accomplish that vision.
And she was right. The boy Samuel became the prophet Samuel, and the prophet Samuel became the finger in the dike of the utter faithlessness of the people of God. While God’s people would whine for a king, it was Samuel who would tell them kings were more trouble than they were worth. While God’s people would seek conquest and power, Samuel would tell them where—and with Whom—true power lay. While God’s people would choose business as usual, with the rich on their thrones and the poor in their nice little redlined districts….Samuel, just like his momma, would tell them what God’s vision of justice looked like. Samuel would be the finger in the dike, holding disaster at bay while preaching his momma’s vision of justice all the way.
I see that hand in the back of the room. The one asking, “So, uh, when exactly is this all supposed to happen? When exactly was Hannah looking at?” After all, the story of the people of God has a lot of ups and downs, but it still feels like we are waiting on that vision to be accomplished. In fact, some might say that Hannah’s sad story is even more tragic when we realize that five hundred generations later, the world was still so messed up that it needed another prophet to foretell and forthtell the same good news. It needed Mary to sing the Magnificat to remind people what true justice and true faith look like. It needed her to be another prophet, telling of another future hope. It is eerie how similar the two songs are, and how sad that the song still needed to be sung by the time of Jesus. Again, Mary sang a song of the tables turned, of reversal of fortunes, of the rich thrown from their thrones, and the poor finding their needs met. Apparently, Hannah’s vision was yet to be realized.
Or maybe the saddest story of all is that a thousand generations after Mary, and fifteen hundred generations after Hannah, the world looks just about the same as it did then. The rich still sit on their thrones, and the poor still show up in droves…210 households at the mobile pantry last month, and record numbers at the in-house pantry this past week. The powerful still look down their noses…maybe some of us still look down OUR noses…at those we regard as lazy, ungrateful, and unworthy. Like Eli, we judge the Hannahs of our world as drunks and like Mary’s contemporaries we ask, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” We presume that they deserve their fate. Has anything changed in the fifteen thousand generations since Hannah?
In fact, I laugh to myself whenever I hear someone talking about COVID-19 and “unprecedented times.” If the Bible has anything to teach us, it is that all of this is completely precedented. Those who can afford medical care will get it, while others go begging. The economy falls apart, and the poor hurt the worst. Change the names of the rich and powerful, and you will find that there is nothing new under the sun.
And meanwhile, you will also find that God’s prophets still sing! The Mary’s and Hannah’s and Samuel’s still stick their finger in the dike and stand up for the poor and oppressed. Today, Hannah invites us to take a ride in the same time machine. To see the vision that God has for the world, a vision of justice and peace. When we see the world through those eyes, it changes the way that we work, that we live, that we practice our faith.
There are a lot of people right now assuming that the winner of the election in November will either bring about total destruction or total peace. But let me suggest that in January, the rich will still be on their thrones and the poor will still be looking up. Now, that sounds cynical and hopeless and apathetic…that it doesn’t matter who you vote for or if you vote. I don’t believe that, but instead think that as Christians we should be thoughtful and engaged in the political process.
But what I mean instead is what Lee Camp (who I quoted more than once this summer), that “hostile and belligerent partisanship among American Christians might be compared to a fistfight over table manners on the sinking Titanic.” 100 In other words, whoever wins the battle for leadership America, Christians must remember that they do not serve the sinking ship that is the United States. What is the goal instead? Says Camp, “to bear witness to the world, even to the powers of the world, what the world was intended to be, and what it shall be with the consummation of the end of history comes.” 141
If you are looking to watch a movie this weekend, and I just dashed your hopes of watching Ben Affleck in Paycheck, I have another suggestion. Go watch Hidden Figures. Several of us watched it this past February, as part of Black History Month, and it is a phenomenal movie. It tells the true story story of African-American women and their roles helping the United States to catch up to Russia in the space race. It shows the challenges, the racism and the sexism that they faced in order to do their part to put these men in space.
Throughout the movie, there is a repeated line. One of the characters is talking to one of these women, Katherine Johnson, about going to the moon. He says, “in my mind, I am already there.” When he asks her again at the end of the movie, she repeats the line back to him. The line works beautifully on a couple of levels…not only talking about the moonshot, but also the struggles that she faced. Like Dr. King’s famous dream, she saw the vision in which she could be seen as an equal part of the work. She was already there.
That is the call of Hannah. In the way that we work and live and practice our faith, let us live as though “we are already there.” The “there” of God’s justice. The “there” of Christ’s vision. The “there” of Hannah’s song. May it be so.