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Asking God

I 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.”

 

Mark 12:38-13:2

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

 

 

Children’s Message:

 

Today’s Bible story is about a person who was all alone in the world. She didn’t have any family to help take care of her and that meant that people who loved God and wanted to do what was right had a special responsibility to take care of her.

One day Jesus was in the temple, where people came to worship, and it was a beautiful place. So beautiful that even Jesus’ friends couldn’t stop talking about it. But even in that beautiful place full of huge, sparkly white stones and gold decorations—what Jesus noticed wasn’t the beautiful building, but this woman who was alone.

He watched her bring the only two coins that she had and give them, trusting that God would do something good with them, even though it had to be hard for her to give them away. It may be that the woman’s gift encouraged Jesus, because he was about to do the same thing. He was about to trust God with his whole life.

What I hope that you’ll remember from this story is that even when other people don’t notice the things that you do; when you are kind to someone who is lonely, or when you clean up a mess so that someone else won’t have to, or when you tell the truth even when it’s hard—God sees those gifts and loves that you offer them.

 

Dear God,

Thank you that you see us. Thank you that you love us. Thank you that the things we do matter to you. Help us to see the people who need our love.  Amen.

 

“Asking God”

 

I’m afraid that religious institutions and religious officials don’t come off very well in either of today’s readings. It is an uneasy Sunday to stand in the pulpit.

In our passage from I Samuel, we meet Hannah, whose most painful obligation is the annual pilgrimage her family makes to the holy site of Shiloh. Nowhere is the void in her life more obvious than in the house of the Lord, where each woman is allotted a share of the sacrificial meal based on how many children she has to feed. In a society that valued women first and foremost for their capacity to bear children, Hannah is bereft. Though her husband Elkinah doubles her single portion as an expression of his love, her rival, her husband’s other wife, so taunts and provokes Hannah, that she is unable to eat.

To add insult to injury, when, in her distress, Hannah pours out her heart to the Lord in the temple, the priest, sitting by the door, so misjudges the situation that he presumes her to be drunk and chastises her.

Religious officials don’t come off any better in Mark’s story. Here, they are so enamored of the power, privilege, and trappings that come with their offices, that they take advantage of the very people they are intended to help. Jesus says to beware of such as these.

I have been living with these two women this week, Hannah and the unnamed widow. They have been unsettling companions.

The only way I know to preach is to carry a text in my heart and then watch what happens: in the news, in my dreams, in my office. Maybe I was on the lookout this week for vulnerable women; I don’t know. Maybe they just came.

John, Hillary and I set aside every Tuesday afternoon to meet with neighbors who come looking for assistance. We have some regulars, but it seems like most of the folks who have been coming through the door lately are new faces. We keep logs, and try to make your dollars count, especially as those funds dwindle at the end of the year. UPC is most known for offering help with utilities. If you live paycheck to paycheck, any unexpected illness or repair bill can set you back, and once you get behind, it’s hard to catch up. Sometimes this church’s help with an overdue utility bill makes it possible for someone to keep their housing or buy groceries or medicine that their family needs.

We try to make appropriate referrals, to stay connected with other community agencies, and to spread out the assistance. It’s rare to help with anyone’s needs more than once or twice a year. Still, we find ourselves in the disturbing position of judging the situations of others and making a call about when we will say “yes” and when we will say “no.”

When the phone rings, the receptionists and office staff spread the word that we start meeting with people at 1:30 on Tuesdays. This week I looked out my door to see a woman sitting by the receptionist’s desk a little after one. I needed to speak to our Controller, Katharine Yager, before she left for an appointment, so I didn’t engage the woman when I walked by, thinking she might connect with one of my colleagues before I returned, but she was still there when I passed back through. Holding a stack of papers in both hands, she followed me into the office.

If you have spent any time at all in a large urban area, I’m pretty confident that you have had the experience of being approached by someone who is panhandling, who has a practiced speech, which they will launch into quickly if you catch their eye. I will confess that I have been known on occasion to interrupt and say “Why don’t you just tell me what you need; I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

So maybe it was because the afternoon was set aside and no one else was waiting, or maybe it was because I wasn’t sure if Hannah or the widow might be sitting across from me, but something told me just to listen. I think the woman talked for 45 minutes without pause.

She was a graduate of UNC and had worked at a number of restaurants whose names you would know. She had also cared for her mother until the time came when her mother needed to move to a Skilled Nursing Facility. After years of juggling those responsibilities, when her situation changed, she seized the chance to take a job on the coast. She put her mother’s things in a storage facility until she was sure that things were going to work out at the beach.

You don’t need all the details, but the upshot was that when Hurricane Florence came through, the woman had to evacuate quickly. The storm flooded both her workplace and her apartment; when she returned she was told that neither would reopen until the spring of next year.

She still had her car, but no source of income or place to stay, so she began to scramble. As a renter, she wasn’t eligible for assistance from FEMA. There was talk of a cell phone from some agency, but it hadn’t arrived. She was sleeping in her car, but said that was okay. Having made her way back to Chapel Hill, she had friends who would let her do laundry at their apartment, and had found a place to shower. She had a solid lead on a job and her friends had pitched in to pay the overdue fees at the storage facility. She had paperwork to back up every piece of her story. All she needed was enough to pay a mover to get her mother’s things out of storage and into the place she’d found to take them. She said, “I know that this is an unusual request—but this is everything I have—and all I have left of my mother. The storage facility has been patient with me, but there are laws they have to follow—and you are the only ones on this long list of churches who even answered the phone when I called.”

Here’s the thing. If you had told me a month ago that I would use the church’s money—your money—God’s money—to get someone’s stuff out of storage, I would have said you didn’t know me very well. But there I was Tuesday afternoon, negotiating with a very kind mover, who wrote off a large portion of the expense, because I couldn’t justify paying more than $200. In the end, he was so touched that the church would help this woman that he asked if he could bring his own donation by.

Nothing about that interaction fits my neat categories. All afternoon my suspicions kept getting overturned.

When the priest Eli tries to dismiss Hannah as intoxicated she says, “No, 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.” One scholar argues that the description of Hannah that we translate, “deeply troubled” would be better rendered “obstinate, or stubborn of spirit.”[1] The woman who sat across from me early Tuesday afternoon shared something of Hannah’s spirit. She dared to hope, to ask, to persist after the thing that meant life to her.

Before she left she said to me, “So many people are in trouble out there; people don’t seem to know. Everyone’s talking about the fires in California. Does anyone realize how many people will be homeless?”

 

✣.  ✣.  ✣

 

What Eli didn’t know about Hannah was that the answer to her prayer would be the answer to his, too. For the child she would soon carry would grow up in his care and would learn to listen to God in a way that Eli’s own sons had not. The child would become the prophet Samuel, through whom God would bring a new day for the people of Israel.

Hannah knew that what is asked of God must then be offered back for God’s use. From the beginning of time, we are blessed that we might be a blessing. God’s desire is for the healing of the world. Our love for God invites us into that same unwieldy project.

 

✣.  ✣.  ✣

 

The woman who came at the end of the day—the bookend to my earlier story—this second woman had been affected by storms, too, though more indirectly. Her water bill had gone up astronomically in the last two months. The water company assured her that it must be a leak caused by the storm; she just needed to get her landlord to fix it—but in the meantime, she was still responsible for the bill. She said she’d paid the bill, and understood that some of it might eventually be credited back to her, but right now she didn’t have enough to cover her electricity.

We resolved that need fairly easily—what struck me about our conversation was something she said as she stood to go. This hopeful young mom, working at a minimum wage job, began to talk about the weather changing, and that Walmart had blankets on sale for two dollars. She said “Everybody can scrape together two dollars”—so she and some friends were pooling their change, making plans to buy a few blankets and take them around to people who were sleeping outside.

She was nearly out the door, when I remembered the thick warm blankets that Janet Anderson makes, and that there had been three tucked in my office closet when I arrived at UPC. I pulled them out and showed them to my visitor. One was perfect for the new baby boy her friend had just delivered. Another was a fall print; the third was a Christmas pattern. Her eyes danced at the bounty she carried away, the gifts that she would soon be able to share.

I suppose that at some subterranean level, her plan to buy $2 blankets for folks on the street reminded me of the widow bringing her last two coins and offering them for God’s use.

The root word for widow in Hebrew means “unable to speak.” Hebrew law also denied widows the capacity to inherit, and so they were among the most vulnerable members of the society—without voice, without possessions.

Without voice, without possessions, but seen by Jesus.

Without voice, without possessions, but just the sort of people God uses to turn the world upside down.

The lectionary is slowly moving us toward Advent, friends; reminding us that God remembers a world in need and wants us to remember, too. For, in the late Eugene Peterson’s lovely paraphrase, the Word has become flesh and moved into the neighborhood.

 

 

 

[1] Bruce C. Birch, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II, Nashville: Abingdon Press, p. 976

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.