November 18, 2018
Prayer is not easy. It is not easy to define because it is both simple and complex. If we think of it at either extreme, we will not understand prayer. It often is not easy to do, either. Or at least, it is not easy to recognize that we are praying. I am standing before you as one example of someone who once thought they didn’t know how to pray. I can tell you, though, the place I was standing when I learned otherwise.
Today, we have Hannah’s story about prayer that begs to be heard, begs to be understood. Hannah prays twice. In the first, we have a visual—we can only see her praying because she speaks no “words.” In the second, we hear her prayer— and it is a SONG.
In Hannah’s first prayer, this is what we see: a woman, alone, intentionally coming to the sanctuary, a safe place, to honestly present herself directly before her Lord. If we only stand at the entrance to watch Hannah, we like Eli, might not see a person in prayer. But if we are willing to go further in to look closer, to look into Hannah’s eyes, to look into her heart, we will see, we might even feel, we might even hear: an unspeakable distress, a bitter weeping, a great anxiety, a troubled self-image, a broken heart, a deep longing, a desperate sadness, a crushed aching and pleading spirit.
This is a picture of Hannah pouring out her heart to God, a prayer of petition and oblation. But no doubt, the picture captures some of our own silent prayers—yours and mine. I understand this prayer because I’ve been there myself, and I’ve been with fiends who have prayed without words, directly from their heart. I’m thinking you also understand this prayer for the same reasons.
In Hannah’s second prayer, time has passed, she has given birth to a new life, and she sings her prayer of adoration and praise and thanksgiving with gusto--“bursting with God-news!” . . . and “dancing her salvation,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message Bible. I understand this prayer, too. I can also burst with God-news. I’ve seen some of you bursting with God-news.
Our lectionary places Hannah’s Song as our Response to her first prayer—we responded this morning with a powerful song about a God who embraces the world in Love, turns the world upside down, and invites us to see it as God intends it to be. It is a song that will later influence The Song of Mary, the Magnificat.
There is a part of Hannah’s story that I haven’t mentioned. We need to look again at Hannah’s first prayer. Eli, the priest, finally understands that Hannah is not drunk, but instead has been praying. Once understood, Eli sends Hannah on her way to go in peace, sends her out with a blessing and a prayer of his own that God will grant Hannah’s petition. Scripture tells us that Hannah turned to leave the sanctuary “. . . and her countenance was sad no longer.”
Her countenance was sad no longer. Something happens; something shifts. What had seemed so extremely sad, took on a quality of joy. Hannah has poured out her heart to God, and in the waiting for God’s response, her countenance was sad no longer, she is already at peace. This a picture of what faith and hope can look like in the face of despair. This is a picture of true grit and grace. This is a picture of a transforming encounter with God. Hannah shows us that we can touch the place where God IS a prayer within us and it is at the intersection of despair and Hope.
In October, 11 people were killed in the Tree of Life synagogue, in their safe place, while they worshiped and prayed and celebrated a new life. During the following weeks, I prayed: I lit candles for the victims, I lit candles to shine upon the conditions of hearts that created this tragedy, I lit candles for the survivors, I meditated on a stained glass piece of art that represented the Jewish Tree of Life, I prayed with my Jewish community at a Memorial Service at Congregation B’Nai Israel, and I meditated on our liturgical readings for today with the events of October still heavy on my mind and heart. I was still meditating on Hannah’s prayer when another gunman killed 12 in a horrific mass shooting at a California bar that was packed with college students.
Hannah’s countenance was sad no longer. Those words came back to me, again and again as I prayed, as I pleaded for guidance. I came to recognize that the lump in my throat that would not go away, was prayer. I recognized that the heaviness on my chest and the sick feeling in my stomach were prayers. But they are more than my petitions for God to do something, they are my answers to the God of Love who ached with me, they are my response to the God, revealed in Jesus, who repeatedly seeks us out and asks us to follow his ways of showing what Love looks like. We have seen hate explode into violence. But the ache within us that won’t go away can move our feet to step out onto the strong foundation of faith and hope--so we can be a living witness to the power of Love.
Prayer is not easy because it prompts us to question and to imagine possibilities. Prayer is not easy because it calls us into action.
Hannah’s story is our story. It is a story about real pain and real joy. It is a story about seeking God with all our hearts, a story about realizing that we are already loved and already heard and already in the process of healing. Listen to the Hope in Hannah’s story.
Listen to the knowing words from Anne Frank: “Where there is hope, there is life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again,” [i] she says.
Listen to and act upon the covenant that God has made with us—the innate sense of right and wrong that has been written in our hearts and minds.
Say the words in our Eucharistic Prayer with gusto: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Know that like Hannah, we can come to our sanctuary to stand directly before our Lord in all our brokenness.
Pray the words from today’s Epistle: let us come to the sanctuary with a true heart in complete assurance of faith . . . let us hold on tightly to our confession of our hope without being diverted, for he who has promised is faithful.
He who has promised is faithful. Scripture is the grand story of God’s faithfulness, and our Collect this morning prays that we will inwardly digest that faithfulness.
Reflect on our aching hearts and notice that the ache within us is sacred energy that wants to move us into action.
Respond to another prayer from today’s Epistle: Let us stir up one another to love and good deeds, meeting together to encourage one another.
Go in peace to love and serve your Lord, knowing that at every turn you are writing your own SONG.
[i] Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, page 314.