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A New Future is Possible
A Sermon based on 1 Samuel 1:4-10
by Rev. Thomas Hall

I’ve always longed for America’s favorite bumper sticker. It teases me at long traffic lights, stares up at me at railroad crossings, and haunts me in grocery store parking lots. "This driver is the proud parent of an honor student at _________ High School." Neither I nor my parents have ever had the need to invest in such marketing. The best we could do would be maybe, "Less-than-impressed parents of a C+ student." No matter. I wouldn’t even know where you’d get those pre-printed stickers. Do they automatically come in the mail along with junior’s straight A report card? Maybe they have a black market out there for parents and students who want the crown but not the cross; who want the sticker but not the aggravation.

I find that same kind of thing in the ministry too. We don’t exactly advertise on our bumpers: "Proud pastor of Huge Mainline Church That Raised $500 at the Church Bazaar" or anything like that. Just wouldn’t be in good taste. It would so long it would conceal the bumper. But I was recently at a ministerium when the conversation took an interesting turn. "Yeah," the host pastor announced. "We’re running three services-we’re bursting at the seams." Well, truth be known, the only seams the rest of us were bursting was around our waist.

"So," the clergy host continued, "how many are you running in your church?" "Not fair!" I wanted to yell, but chose not to. I am a church planter; my congregation is just beginning. In fact, we meet in a tavern and we haven’t even had our first bazaar yet. Half-jesting, but truthfully, I said, "We’ve almost got enough to form a full volleyball team." Wouldn’t that look great on the bumper sticker-"Proud pastor of a volleyball team-sized church." It’ll be awhile before we ever show up around the clergy bumper sticker crowd.

That’s the point. We don’t want to hang around the proud parents and success-story churches and pastors when we’re not doing well. Especially when we find ourselves at the opposite ends of the achievement continuum. I know several faithful, older pastors who find themselves in congregations in which the biggest vision they can muster is to say no in marvelously creative ways to new opportunities while maintaining what they’ve always done. I know of deep wounds between pastors and churches that are far beyond conflict management’s best resolutions.

I arrived at one church that was absolutely pathetic. The annual report for the previous year was entitled, Is Anybody Listening? I have never heard such hopelessness and barrenness as that report had. The question referred to lack of everything that should be happening in a vital church. Apparently no one was listening to their prayers-attendance had driveled down to two figures, few families with children attended, the handful of teenagers had long been driven off by the trustees for using their skate boards on the empty church parking lot. "We have no insurance," they had told the boys. But what’s that mean to a bunch of kids who just want a place to skate? The offerings could no longer support a minister. Is anybody listening? "Tired members of a boring church-everyone welcomed (except skateboarders)" is a bumper sticker that just doesn’t pull ‘em in.

And that’s where we enter the text this morning: a place of barrenness, a place where no one was listening, where no bumper stickers could have expressed national or personal pride. Like Ruth that we read about last week, Hannah, too, is barren-no child, no son, no heir, no future, no hope-a place where no one is listening. As you know only too well, in ancient times children were valued because they extended one’s life into the future. Children were a sign of God’s continued blessing; children, in a sense, promised immortality-people could live beyond their lifetimes through their children. But the reverse was also painfully obvious. Women who didn’t have children carried the stigma of God’s curse. Barrenness was a grave, a place to be stuck in, to never have the joy of passing life on through eternity. Hannah, the Bible says, is barren.

But Hannah is not the only one stuck in barrenness. Israel, too, is barren. The Philistines have reduced Israel to a marginal existence; they now cower on the edge of the map of Palestine. Everyone lives in constant fear of being terrorized even when they harvest their grain. No leader can pull the tribes together. Instead, bully chieftains clamor to power and manage to rule until the next bruiser comes along and clobbers the last one. We know of one further place of barrenness: moral chaos and undisciplined spirituality. The spirituality quest must have been enormous and eclectic-a syncretism that blended in flavors of Baal, Asteroth, El, and Yahweh. There was no distinctive word of God for the community. There is barrenness in the land and Hannah reflects that in her own life.

Barrenness, however, doesn’t respect timelines or nationalities. We may spell it differently, but we face our own barrenness today. I recently listened to an intriguing interview on National Public Radio between a leader in the PLO and one from the former Rabin administration. Ten years earlier these two men had worked together on the Oslo Peace Accord and in the process had become friends. The interviewer replayed a recording of these early days: "the prospect for peace between our countries is beyond euphoric!" one of them gushed. The other had invited his counterpart to his country for coffee-a genuine offer of hospitality. They had hoped to bring fifty years of violence to a close. Now ten years later-and hundreds of acts of terrorism and suicide bombs, mines, missiles that had claimed hundreds of children and civilians-these two men were again being interviewed. When asked what happened to the hope that was "beyond euphoric," one of the men blamed the other for changing in his position. Then that blame was flung back to the other side. Didn’t take long for people listening to the program to sigh in the face of untold bloodshed and violence. Doesn’t take long to realize we are still in the same barrenness that we were ten years ago. We cannot have the child our world so yearns for-peace.

Multiply the greed so recently symbolized by Enron and our inability to rebuild Iraq and stabilize Afghanistan; add to that our own fractured families where on average we spend less than ten minutes of quality time with our kids each day, and the seminars that schools now offering to help families cope with overscheduling and we come to a barrenness of soul and life.

We don’t know everything Hannah went through in her yearning to have a child and thus to participate in a future. We are spared the personal guilt, shame, and humiliation. Inspite of her husband’s kind words and his valuing of her life, Hannah will not be comforted. She is alive yet mourns as if dead; Hannah is in such deep anguish over her barrenness, so painfully aware of her lack and so wounded by the cutting remarks of family members that she loses her appetite, loses her passion for life. Hannah is barren.

In her barrenness and seemingly hopeless life she worships. "She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly," the writer tells us. That’s not the kind of prayers proud parents nor boastful pastors pray very often; we can’t pray like that when life is good, it’s all good. But when our bones are out of joint with desperation, our prayers are one-syllable groans. No time to carefully arrange words on paper for balance and sound. "Oh God, look at my misery," she prays. Those words aren’t all that artful nor particularly creative. But on the lips of someone like Hannah those words open up new possibilities where none exists. Slobbering drunk-that’s what the priest thought of her act of praying. She’s whining-that what’s her sister-in-law would have taunted. Wasted breath Elkanah may have remonstrated. But to a barren woman, who spills her misery before God, it is a prayer that opens a door for God to create a new possibility where none existed.

"To clasp the hands in prayer," Karl Barth once said, "is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world." Right there in worship, Hannah begins an uprising against the barrenness that has shriveled her country and her life into insignificance. Martin Luther described such bold praying as "a continuous violent action of the spirit lifted up to God." Hannah’s prayer is important and it has an effect with God. As she beats on the doors of heaven to be heard, the door swings open to a new possibility for God to act in life-giving, life-saving ways. That’s what the story is about, according to Brueggemann, it’s about a process through which the problem of barrenness is transformed into a resolution of glad, trustful, yielding praise. The chapter ends not with simply a persistent pray-er, but with a powerful, transformative God who can harness barrenness and turn it into fruitful possibilities.

What about us? Where is God working in our barrenness? Well, I don’t even have the conclusions of all of the stories in my own life and experiences. But this I know from observing God acting among us. God has taken a church wondering if anybody is listening and turned it into a vital, caring congregation that now bears a new bumper sticker: "Proud Members of A Vital Church-Skateboarders Welcomed." God has opened new opportunities for a church that meets in a tavern to welcome folks that feel uncomfortable in steepled buildings. Jim came for the first time last Sunday. Had heard about a church in the tavern. While we were politely eating our cookies and sipping our coffee, my friend Jim came over with his black and tan-so delighted to worship God and drink beer during the fellowship hour. He probably wondered why no one else didn’t take advantage of this great opportunity. He is a great candidate for our volleyball team.

Hear the Good News! In Jesus Christ, God is actively bringing fruitfulness into our barrenness. God may even muzzle barrenness and use it to bring us to a place of honest, gut-wrenching dependence that takes us way beyond polite circles and stained glass prayers. Yet the story line is the same as Hannah’s. God will change our barrenness to birth, our vexation to praise, and our isolation to worship. Amen.