Sermon preached November 15, 2015
Texts: I Samuel 1:4-20
My wife Julie and I have been married for over thirty-three years. I feel blessed that we enjoy each other’s company, that we laugh often, and that we have three pretty wonderful children. It is our daughter Sarah’s birthday today. It might not have been, however. Our relationship struggled with Risk. I’m not talking about taking chances, I am talking about the board game Risk, the game of global domination.
Neither Julie nor I are the most competitive people I know. I compete more with myself than with others, though, if I go golfing and am not doing so well it is some small consolation if I am doing a little better than someone else. Mostly, I just want to do well. Risk, especially when only two play pits person against person, and when one is winning the other is losing. Early in our relationship, playing that game – well, they weren’t our best moments.
I asked Julie permission to tell our Risk story, and we both are wondering what it might be like to play the game again. If Julie isn’t in church some coming Sunday, well….
Risk – it’s not just a board game. Risk seems to me to be an important element in the life of faith in the God of Jesus, an important part of following Jesus, of living in the Spirit. In his justly-celebrated book, The Road Less Traveled published now over thirty-five years ago, Scott Peck wrote: On some level spiritual growth, and therefore love, always requires courage and involves risk (131). He goes on: All life represents a risk, and the more lovingly we live our lives the more risks we take (134). If Scott Peck were alive today, he died in 2005, he might be on TED talks. One writer who has become well-known through TED talks, Brene Brown (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en ), in fact over 22 million people have listened to her TED talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown echoes some of the thoughts of Scott Peck in more recent writings. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain (The Gifts of Imperfection, 73)
Risk, it’s more than just a board game. To live life fully, to follow Jesus, to have faith in God, to live in the Spirit, entails risk. Hannah’s story is a story about risk – and about vulnerability, and about courage and about love. I want to reflect on this story and how it might speak to us of life, faith, love and risk – the importance of risk for life, faith and love.
Hannah risks genuine feeling, complex feeling, and that challenges us in a relatively shallow age. Hannah weeps, deeply distressed. She weeps bitterly. She weeps embarrassingly. Elkanah is uncomfortable with her distress, and makes a rather feeble attempt to close off her pain. “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Eli thinks she is inebriated. She weeps from the depth of who she is. She feels her pain, her deep anxiety. Later she feels joy. She is open to herself, even if it is painful right now. She is open and honest with God, feeling deeply and complexly.
Brene Brown wisely writes: We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions (The Gifts of Imperfection, 70). Yet we live in an age of numbing, of keeping things shallow. Are we willing to risk deep and genuine feeling, complex feeling? In the wake of the tragedy in Paris, there is anger. Are we also willing to feel all the feelings – anger, grief, sadness, compassion?
Hannah risks heartbreak in the cause of a larger heart, and that challenges us in a defensive age. Hannah feels, and what she feels in this story is a lot of heartache. Her heart is broken. We may not quite get it, though if you have ever been in conversations with couples who want to have a child and are having difficulty, you know the depth of this heartbreak. In Hannah’s culture, a woman’s worth was tied up in providing her husband with a male child. Barrenness was considered something of a curse. Elkanah’s other wife Peninnah, who had given Elkanah both sons and daughters, reminds Hannah of her sorry state. Hannah feels heartbreak over the way things are.
Parker Palmer writes insightfully about heartbreak. There are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken. One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about – a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid. The other is to imagine the heart broken open into a new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome. As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. (A Hidden Wholeness, 178)
There is a Hasidic tale about the heart. A pupil comes to his teacher. “Rebbe, why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The teacher answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.” (In Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, 181)
Heartbreak, hearts broken open into new capacities, so new words can fall in – are we willing to risk having our hearts broken by the gap between what is and what could be in an age that encourages defensiveness against just such heart break?
Hannah risks looking foolish, and that challenges us in a cynical age, when caring to the point of looking foolish is considered silly. Hannah appears inebriated, at least to the priest Eli. Both Elkanah and Eli consider her foolish, overwrought. Then, toward the end of the story, Hannah, feeling assured that something is different, tries again with Elkanah. If you are going to have a child, you need to do such things as might make that possible. Hannah tries again. She acts as if things could be different, as if God really might be at work in the world to make things different.
We live in a time of great cynicism. People don’t engage in the public arena because there are convinced that it will do no good. People don’t re-examine the relationship that doesn’t seem to be working, convinced that nothing can be done. To be sure, change can come slowly. To be sure, that is true for individuals as well as for the larger world. Yes, history is littered with nations blundering into war, and people oppressing people. Cynicism can make sense – the closed heart, the shallow emotions, not investing too much of myself in others or in causes. Yet cynicism is a kind of numbing, and we cannot numb selectively.
Hannah risked showing up and letting herself be seen. Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly writes: Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging…. Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measures of our fear and disconnection…. We must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. (2) The story of Hannah is a story about a woman who engages her vulnerability and dares to show up and be seen. Are we willing to do the same?
It is asking a lot of ourselves to engage in such “risky” behavior – risk deep, genuine and complex feeling, risk heartbreak in the service of a larger heart, risk looking foolish in the service of larger questions and causes and personal growth, risk showing up and being seen. It is good to remind ourselves of the promise of this way. Brene Brown: Vulnerability [uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure] is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. (Daring Greatly, 34)
It is good to have contemporary confirmation of the insights of ancient stories. Hannah understands and lives risk, vulnerability, courage, and love, and in the end she finds life – literally and metaphorically. Woven throughout this story, though, is a deep trust in God. What makes the courage to risk, to be vulnerable, possible for Hannah, and for us, too, I think, is deep trust that God walks with us, cares for us, loves us, wants us to grow, needs us to work with God for a newer world. The God of the Hannah story is a God of grace, goodness, surprises, delight – a God who delights in bringing those on the margins into the center of the story, a God who delights in bringing joy out of mourning, a God who delights in new life.
Hannah’s story will echo in other stories we will read soon as the season of Advent and Christmas arrive – the story of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, the story of Mary, mother of Jesus.
Trusting God, may we risk feeling and heartbreak and foolishness and showing up. May we risk praying to this God of grace, goodness, surprises and delight: In grace, make us more sensitive to the stirrings of your Spirit. Move us, shake us, shape us, embrace us. Form us in your creative and responsive love. Nurture in us songs of hope, audacious visions, essential questions, prophetic boldness, the strength to love. Grant us the courage to live the way of Jesus. It is a risky prayer, maybe just the kind of prayer God enjoys most. It is a risky prayer, but a necessary one in a world so in need of songs of hope, audacious visions, essential questions, prophetic boldness, the strength to love. Amen.