My daughter and I spent Thanksgiving together, so she searched for a place in a small town where we could eat turkey outside on a patio practicing safe social distancing during this pandemic. Her research led us to making a reservation in Elora, famous for its “gorge” and beautiful, historic setting. We were not disappointed with the set-up for the nine tables and the turkey dinner itself. It was a cool but very sunny mid-afternoon and despite this terrible year it was a time of beauty and pleasure in a safe and healthy environment.
Partway through our meal we began to realize that we were not the only “tourists” on the patio. One table was a lively group of people originally from the Philippines, while another was a quite mixed-race couple. Other tables were also people clearly not from Elora. One group consisted of two tables with eight people at each table with men at one table and women at another. They were of Middle Eastern descent and seemed to be a family group and adult friends. While we were enjoying our pumpkin pie a very large birthday cake was brought out for one of the Middle Eastern women.
Once the candles were re-lit, several times actually as there was a breeze, the table of Filipinos began to sing “happy birthday”. Other tables joined in singing and clapping to congratulate this stranger who was celebrating her birthday. As the cake was being served at their two tables conversation returned to the individual tables of all present. Until that is the son of the woman whose birthday it was began to take cake to each of the tables around them! As the son approached each table with cake he said kindly: “If you don’t mind.” Having just commented after our pumpkin pie that we felt very satisfied but not stuffed my daughter and I looked at the two slices of cake in disbelief! Courtesy required us to eat it of course and we did—only to discover that it was perhaps the best chocolate cake we had ever eaten! Was it the flavour? Yes. Was it the generosity and company of strangers? YES!!
What more fitting example of Thanksgiving could there be in Canada but the exchange of good wishes and thanks between people who did not know one another? The food was awesome, the setting quite beautiful, but it was the people that made this a truly Canadian thanksgiving.
You may be wondering what this has to do with Hannah. Remember it was Hannah’s son that would change their world and it was the son who brought cake to our several tables and changed our experience of Thanksgiving. This is not a thought about how wonderful sons are, although they may indeed be wonderful, but about the women who nurture, shape and influence the goodness and kindness of each new generation. As the two of us sat at our little table on Thanksgiving we were not lonely. We were not isolated. We were embraced within a fellowship of those who chose to share the goodness and blessings of life with others who until that moment were complete strangers.
Out of her pain and desire to have a son Hannah gave birth to the future for her people and it was a future that when lived in harmony with others, as God had instructed the people of Israel to do, was a fellowship of those who chose to share the goodness and blessings of life with others. Hannah was also a poet who captured the spirit of her relationship with God. Her words, which were so powerful in her day, touching both her experiences as a woman but also the life of the whole community of faith, ring true in our day as well. We hear Hannah’s words and find ourselves saying, yes, there really is “no rock like our God”. As you know, being barren in Hannah’s time was to be without hope. That is not the case in most places today but in that day not having a child, especially a son, had implications for your standing in the community but more importantly implications for your future. What if you were left widowed, who would look after you? That was the role of the son and without a son you were left unprotected, perhaps cared for by your brother-in-law, certainly at the bottom of the rung in terms of status in the family and community. Having a son was really your guarantee of a future…in terms of your own care and in terms of what you cared about: the faith and values that you want to leave for future generations.
Walter Brueggemann points out that: “Our history always begins with the barren, with Sarah, with Rebekah, with Rachel, with Hannah and with Elizabeth. Among those, always as good as dead, the wondrous gift is given. The inability to bear is a curious thing, and we know that for all our science the reasons most often are historical, symbolic, and interpersonal. It is often news—good news, doxology—that brings the new future to effect and the new energy to birth.” The sense of giving birth is not then just birth to one child, as joyous as that might be, but it is a testimony to God having a sense of the future and caring for that future and with us building that future. There are many things which might oppress us, both personally and as a community, but if we have that sense of the energy which comes with each new birth then we know with certainty that there will be a tomorrow. Life will continue in the lives of the newborns. I do not know what has happened with our birthrate during this year of COVID-19. I do know that for our community of faith we have not had even one baptism this year. I am not quite sure how we might even do that but it is one of the highlights of our faith together that we have not experienced. We managed with communion and I am sure that we could determine a way to baptize—yet it would not be physically surrounding a young child with the assurance that we are there for them, that we have their back, and that we are their people too that we have come to enjoy.
Hannah wrote a poem that often is sung now as a hymn. We recall that Elizabeth and Mary did the same as they found the words to express their relationship with God and how blessed they felt to be part of God’s renewal of the world. Trying to express our deep emotions of the goodness of God is what we do when against all odds we see our prayers fully realized: new life and it is life as promised where there is no rock but our God. Hannah would never be hired to write verses for Hallmark Cards. She could have if she had decided to write only about the cuteness of her newborn. Hannah saw way beyond that narrow horizon and recognized that in God there was hope not just for her and her baby, but hope for the whole community of faith, the people of Israel. There is no room on Hallmark cards for challenges to imperial powers; there is no room for a time of reckoning when those who are billionaires and who have made their fortunes on the backs of others add even more billions to their wealth during a pandemic; there is no room to write about how those who appear to have it all and are without God in their lives have nothing; and there is no room to write of the hungry who have been filled with good things and the rich have been sent empty away. No, Hannah did not write for a greeting card company but justice in an unjust world is what Hannah wrote about and the only place where those words could be held as testimony to future generations were in the Scriptures…and so Hannah speaks to us today.
There are some terrible words in Hanna’s poem that we would rather not use today, words which have God lifting up with one hand and killing with another. Those are words that are foreign to our thinking and images of God. Hannah’s words are heard by our modern minds as both contradictory and ultimately more about a god of vengeance who punishes the bad guys and blesses the good guys than the God of forgiveness and love that we know. “But”, writes Brueggemann, “the rhetoric is not just about ‘good us’ and ‘bad them’. It is also about the inscrutable power of God, who ‘brings low and also exalts’. It asserts a ‘wild card’ in the power process that (denies any absolute)…claims to power and all postures of stability. And the way of the wild card, the prophetic tradition suggests, is not militarism, but rhetoric, a key instrument in the fall as in the rise.” We see this playing out in the current election campaigns in the United States. There are those who seek to control by the power of lies and deception and the superiority of shouting over dialogue, while there are others that recognize in the commitment to diplomacy and dialogue the possibility of winning not the war, but the peace. Hannah comes to know that her God turns the world upside down that good may prevail. She has learned that the kings of this world do not rule by might but by God’s grace and wrote: “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them the world is set.”
Power, as we witness in the life of Hannah, is not in what you gain over someone as Peninnah tried to gain power over Hannah by being more prolific and abusing Hannah for her barrenness. Power, if it even still bears that name, is what you do for others. For Hannah that meant giving up the one thing she wanted most in life, her son Samuel to be a nazirite, a monk, so that Samuel might be dedicated to the God who fulfills our lives, even if we do not understand all the ways by which that might happen. Hannah, the once barren wife, has been blest and she chooses to share her blessing with others, beginning with God. Then the most amazing thing happens, Hannah breaks into song! She began her prayer asking God to “remember me…do not forget me” and now her whole life, including her son, the one who will anoint the kings of Israel, thereby establishing the line of David from which will come centuries later another son, born to Mary, and who will become the saviour of the world.
Hannah gives us the gift of knowing that every child is a gift from God and therefore belongs to God. Our duty as parents, and as people of faith, is to teach all of God’s children that God will be with them and God will love them throughout their lives and that there is no rock like our God.