Sermon: Rise and Fall and Reversal

November 14, 2021

1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10

by Eric Anderson

The noio colony nested in a happy if occasionally noisy community on the cliff faces of Kamokuna. It was pretty quiet during the day when everybody was out fishing, with more noise in the evening as they returned and a fair bit more in the morning as everyone was waking up. Truthfully, it was really hard to tell how much noise the noio themselves were making. The wind ruffling in feathers and hollows in the rocks were pretty loud in themselves, and they could hardly be heard over the crashing of the waves as they pounded on the feet of the cliffs far below.

Nearly the entire colony was out fishing when the loudest thing that had ever happened in their memory took place, so only a few got to hear it and to report it. There was a rumble and a shaking, a shaking greater than anything a wave had ever generated. Alarmed, the few noio resting on the ledges took to the air, looking on in awe, wonder, and fear as great cracks widened in the clifftop. In places where an arch stretched over the water, flakes of rock began to drop into the sea, followed by ever larger stones. To the horror of the hovering noio, a long stretch of cliff shivered into boulders and cascaded down, throwing up a veil of spray that hid, for a moment, the destruction of their long-time homes.

When the bulk of the colony returned, they found the birds who’d witnessed the event shivering on the ground surface away from the cliff edge. They gazed at the new cliffs with puzzlement and with awe. They listened to their cousins’ and neighbors’ account of the falling cliff with amazement.

“Now what do we do?” asked one at last. “Where will we nest from now on?”

Most of the birds simply looked at one another. What would they do? One by one, their beaks turned to the kupuna among the noio, the ones who knew best the stories of their flock, the ones who taught the young ones about the best fishing and the tricks of flying.

“Long ago,” said one older female, “the cliff fell. It was a terrible day. The noio grieved for their lost homes.”

“But also long ago,” said another, “the noio found that the new cliff had its own shelfs and openings and shelter.”

“Long ago,” said the first, “the noio took up their new homes above the fallen stones of the old.”

“And today,” said the second, “the new home of the noio will stand above the remnants of the old.”

Sure enough, they looked and found that the rocks, in falling, had left new ledges and crevasses. Somewhat cautiously, they sought out their new spaces, and made their new homes.

Hannah’s problems were not under her control. She wanted a child, and she had not had one. Just emotionally that was a terrible strain. Alphonetta Wines writes at Working Preacher, “An unsettled ache lingers no matter what one does. Possibility thinking, positive psychology, words of affirmation, wishing, hoping, even praying don’t make the hurt go away. Like the smell of smoke after a cigarette has extinguished, this type of pain relentlessly meanders in one’s thoughts. It is an unwelcome guest that wore out its welcome long ago.”

But Hannah also lived in a society that placed entirely different strains upon her. She was one of Elkanah’s wives, and Peninnah, who had had children, chose to provoke her with it. Elkanah’s self-centered notion of comfort – “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” – I mean, really? – well, it didn’t comfort.

Further, as Kathryn M. Schifferdecker notes, “In a patriarchal society, where a woman’s worth is linked to her ability to have children, Hannah is particularly vulnerable. Though her husband loves her, she has no security for herself once he dies. Though her husband loves her, she is scorned and belittled by her husband’s other wife and likely by the society at large.”

She had a lot on her mind and heart and soul when she came to the shrine at Shiloh to pray.

Likewise, she had a lot of joy on her mind and heart and soul when she prayed her song of thanksgiving. Curiously, it doesn’t quite match her own situation. There’s only one reference to childbearing in Hannah’s Song, which speaks of the barren bearing seven. She’d had one child, a child she had actually given away to live and grow up at the temple in chapter 1 verse 28.

Hannah created her song out of her own experience in God’s fulfilled promises. What she created, however, was greater than her own experience and looked forward to more promises fulfilled for more people. She prayed for a great reversal of circumstances, to see the strong weakened and the weak strengthened, to see the wealthy hungry and the hungry fed. The author of Psalm 113 would copy chapter two verse 8 nearly word for word. Over a thousand years after Hannah, another young woman would be inspired by her own encounters with God and by Hannah’s Song to sing another prayer of reversal. You’ll find it in the first chapter of Luke. We’ll read it in a few weeks. It’s Mary’s song, usually known by its Latin title, the Magnificat.

What do these ancient songs of reversal say to us?

Something we’d already known: that the circumstances of life are temporary. One day we’re down, one day we’re up. Things can change and they will change.

They also tell us clearly that some things need to change. As Kathryn M. Schifferdecker writes, “Hannah praises God for God’s care for the downtrodden, the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. In the song, the world’s expectations of ‘same old, same old’ are upended and the world itself is turned upside down. The hungry are fed and the rich are made to work for their bread. The poor are lifted up and the powerful humbled.” There are nine reversed pairs in Hannah’s song, starting with “the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.” By my count, four of them have to do with improving the situation of the poor and reducing the circumstances of the rich.

At least some of the authors of the Bible – we’ll have to include Hannah, the chroniclers who included her song in 1 Samuel, the author of Psalm 113, the editors who included Psalm 113 in that collection of poems, Mary, and Luke – looked at the world as it was and said, “This has to change.”

These songs of reversal also say that faithful people have believed and continue to believe that God wants them to change. In contrast to a functional “Prosperity Gospel” that claims God’s blessing rests upon the wealthy and powerful, these songs of reversal maintain that God is not happy about a society with such profound gaps between the richest and the poorest. Jesus, you might recall, explained the deep challenges of getting a wealthy man into the realm of God. You might as well try threading a needle with a camel. Well, you know, you try it. I’m not going to.

Camels get cranky.

Jesus’ response when questioned about this was the same as the angel’s when Mary wanted to know how she was going to have a child: Nothing is impossible with God. Even straightening out our topsy-turvy social order.

In these days, we are experiencing a profound disruption of our world. This pandemic hasn’t precisely reversed things – the American super-wealthy have added dramatically to their wealth in the last year and a half and the poor have not. What the pandemic has done is humble the pride of high technology nations, or at least it should have. We continue to act with such astonishing hubris, looking for reasons to believe that the pandemic is over even as disease continues to spread and take lives. The United States has lost over 780,000 of our neighbors to COVID-19 since the pandemic began. We’re number one. In deaths per million population, we’re number twenty. In number of cases per million population, we’re number 15.

And a senator from Texas is complaining that a cartoon bird is offering support to keiki whose parents will be bringing them to be vaccinated.

We probably ought to have taken Hannah’s words a little more seriously: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth.”

I wish I could tell you that our conditions will be reversed – our COVID conditions, or our social conditions, or the conditions of our individual pains and sorrows. Rather, I wish I could tell you that it will be soon. I can’t tell you when. I can’t.

What I can tell you is that things change. I can tell you that some things should change. I can tell you that God wants the things that should change to change. I can tell you that we can be part of bringing that change. I can tell you that things change. In their time, things change.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the entire service of November 14, 2021. Clicking Play will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

Is the sermon delivered identical to the sermon prepared? No – Pastor Eric likes to think it’s been improved.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , , | Posted on November 14, 2021

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