Persist, Advocate, Be Thankful
1 Samuel 1:4-20
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.”
As we prepare our homes, our food, and our travel plans for Thanksgiving, we think about all the things we are thankful for in our lives. While Thanksgiving can be a joyful holiday, it has become increasingly clear that not everyone has cause for joy: some people are mourning lost loved ones, some are estranged from their family, and some people don’t have the food and shelter to celebrate with. For those who are struggling this year, your pain and your story matters too. I see you. You are loved by this church and by our God. As we prepare for the holiday I invite us, as the Body of Christ, to take a look at this scripture passage that navigates the complicated path to thankfulness. I believe that this story of Hannah shows us how to respond faithfully to people in all walks of life, while also providing space for joy and celebration. For those who are struggling, this story teaches how to persist in our needs and desires. It teaches us that it’s okay not to be okay all the time, and that we have a right to ask for help from others. For those who have an abundance of blessings, this scripture passage teaches us to advocate with others and to be helpers to those in need. Finally, it teaches all of us to give thanks for what we have, because God is good.
I love this story of Hannah praying for a child. Hannah is not afraid to go after what she wants and bravely kneels before God in the temple to plead her case and implore God for her deepest desire. Hannah is a persistent woman. Instead of giving into her rival who provoked her, she continued to pursue her desire to become a mother. She persists further when Eli, the priest in the temple, tells her to stop making a drunken spectacle of herself. She stands up for herself, saying that she is not drunk at all and that she shouldn’t be counted as a “worthless woman.” Instead she insists that her voice matters, she is pouring out her soul and speaking her anxiety and vexation. Hannah is speaking her truth, and she refuses to be silent. I love Hannah, a strong woman who knows what she wants, who is willing to go after it, and refuses to let anyone silence her, including Eli the priest.
The best examples of persistence I have ever seen was when I spent time as a chaplain at the Outreach and Advocacy Center, or the OAC, at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta. At the OAC my job was to do intake with people who needed to get their Georgia identity cards and their birth certificates. We also provided vouchers for food, clothing, and medical services. Most of our guests who received services at the OAC were experiencing homelessness in some shape or form. One job in particular that I loved to do was mentoring our guests who were in our program that helped people get ready for jobs. One of the OAC employees would hold free classes to help any guest who wanted to strengthen their resume, learn basic computer skills, and help them improve their interview skills. My job was to sit with these guests and ask how they were doing, what was going on in their lives, and see if there was any other way our organization could be a support. This time was very special because I could connect with guests on a one-on-one basis, hear their stories, and offer a prayer for them.
A gentleman I mentored was very serious about his success. He was coming to the program every day, walking an hour and a half from the park he was sleeping in to get to class on time. When we found this out, we gave him bus fair so that he didn’t have to walk so far. When he was down to the last week of the program, he had an interview for a full-time job. He promised to come back and tell me how things went. About a week later he asked for a moment of my time and if I could step away from my desk. We sat down together, and he was trying to seem very serious, but I could tell he was holding back a smile. After beating around the bush a little, he finally told me that he landed the job. I jumped up, we hugged, and I congratulated him. It was his persistence and hard work that got him to a new stage in his life, and his willingness to seek the help offered to him. This man had the persistence of Hannah, refusing to let the obstacles in his life stop him from succeeding. For anyone who has a need or a struggle, know that you are a beloved child of God, and you are valuable and worth the persistence. For those in the church who are doing well and have enough to share, let us respond as Christ would to persistent people and share our blessings honoring their value. We can become advocates. Eli shows us how not to be one through his mistake of judging Hannah.
Once Hannah defends herself, Eli realizes his error; he had been quick to judge her and make assumptions about her intentions and her character. He then shifts his focus to advocating with her, telling her to go in peace and that the God of Israel will grant her the petition she has made. When I was in college I was exposed to outreach, missions, social justice, and evangelism through our chapel program. Speakers from the United States and from all over the world would come and tell us about their ministries. These included helping persecuted Christians, nonprofit organizations that sold fair trade gifts, and orphanages that helped connect families. As a girl who had grown up fairly sheltered from the world, I felt like my eyes had been opened to injustice and how Christians should be bringing messages of hope. My heart was stirred, and I wanted to take action and become an advocate. I was very passionate and fervent in my new understanding of the world, and I remember that I adopted the phrase, “being a voice for the voiceless.” While this came from a good place with good intentions, I had my over-zealous bubble popped rather abruptly. One of my professors kindly, but firmly said that we don’t advocate for people but with people. The professor also told me that there is no such thing as a voiceless person; instead, those of us who have a voice in society could choose to step back so that other voices can be heard. I learned that what I had was known as a “savior complex”; I thought that my actions would help me swoop in and save the day. I would gain satisfaction and gratification from helping and doing good in the world. But this wasn’t the right way to advocate, because I was really making advocacy about myself: my desires to help and to be a helpful person would easily get in the way of the desires and needs of those who I intended to help. The priest Eli learned this lesson too. He misjudged the situation and spoke on Hannah’s behalf. She corrected him with her needs and desires, and he changed his behavior. Eli then blesses Hannah with her needs as the priority, using his platform as a priest to step back and let her voice be heard.
I saw the best way to advocate also at the OAC. One gentleman I worked with had just gotten into some housing and was preparing for job interviews. He was very positive and upbeat about his future, and he was grateful for my help in getting his birth certificate. It was required for our paperwork that we ask why he was requesting a birth certificate. He told me he needed his documentation to access his veteran benefits. He was both amazed and frustrated with the veteran benefits available to him; he was amazed at how much his life was improving because he had access to benefits, but he was frustrated that there were so many veterans sleeping on the streets who didn’t know what programs and opportunities were available to them. He told me that he was going to be just fine and now he is going to use his voice and his platform to tell his fellow veterans about the resources they could apply for. There wasn’t enough education in the community for the local veterans to know how or where they could get help, so he decided to help their voices would find a place to be heard. This was an important lesson for me about advocacy, and I believe this man reflects the voice of Eli who advocated with Hannah. For those of us that have a voice in society, a platform from which we are heard, or any type of influence, large or small, let us use those opportunities to uplift the voices of others and listen closely to the desires and needs of the people who are persisting against obstacles in society.
After this encounter in the temple, Hannah soon conceives a son. Hannah is so thankful to God for the answer to her prayer that she names him Samuel because she had asked for him from the Lord. Hannah not only dedicates Samuel’s namesake to God, but she dedicates him to the temple. When Samuel is old enough to be weaned, Hannah brings him to the temple to be committed to the Lord. She leaves him there to learn and live under Eli the priest. The is the ultimate act of gratitude: to give away the child that she so desperately desired to the service of the Lord. Hannah responded with gratitude by emptying herself, and God’s blessings were multiplied through Samuel’s life of being a prophet and judge. Author Ann Voskamp explains in her book 1000 Gifts that living a life of gratitude means trusting that “there is always enough God.” God has no end, and if we are blessed in our gratitude we bless others without fear that we will run out of God’s blessings. Just like Hannah, Ann Voskamp says that we empty ourselves to fill others and be filled by the goodness of God. That is the cycle of gratitude, we receive, we give thanks, and we give back. This is the cycle we see in Hannah’s story: persistence, advocacy, and giving thanks.
Beloved, let us know our worth and persist in our desires and needs. God wants to fulfill our needs. We can be brave and tell our truth like Hannah. Let us be a part of fulfilling those needs by being advocates. When we are a blessed people, we need not fear scarcity but live in abundance. There is enough God for all, and we can participate in God’s goodness. We can learn, like Eli, to advocate with people and amplify their voices. Then together let us give thanks and praise to God by engaging in joy and continuing to share and love one another. Samuel was a gift given to Hannah, but was shared that gift with all of Israel. In our posture of gratitude, let us respond as faithful people, as the Body of Christ, to love and serve all. Praise be to God. Amen.