1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10
October 18, 2020
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
I had my prayer life broken at church camp.
We were gathered in a basement, parlor-type room in a Methodist church in Baldwin City, Kansas. The camp I attended every summer divided us up into Care Groups - five or six youth along with a caring adult. I cannot remember the name of my Care Group leader that year, but I remember his face. He was affable, open. At the time he seemed oldish to me, but I bet he was under fifty. And he was caring. I remember learning a lot from him and enjoyed the time we all spent together.
One day as we talked about prayer I shared how important my prayer life was to me. See, what you need to know is that I was also in a very close-knit high school Sunday School class back home. Every Sunday for four years we gathered in the basement of my own Methodist church with a different set of caring adults. We ate convenience store powdered donuts and drank Sunny Delight. And we prayed. Hard.
We spent almost an hour every single week for four years sharing our joys and concerns with one another and then we closed our eyes, folded out hands, bowed our heads and prayed out loud for one another. It was a powerful experience. So powerful, in fact, that we did it during the week, too. Before school and during passing periods we would meet up in the hallways of our high school to quickly pray for a 3rd period math test, an unfinished English paper, a nerve-wracking audition.
We prayed and we fully believed that God heard our prayers and could answer them. It felt good.
And then, one summer, my Care Group leader ruined my prayer life with one question. As I told the group about how faithfully my friends and I prayed for and with one another he said, “I don’t actually think God works that way. I mean, what if there’s a tornado barreling down on your street and you are in your basement praying for it to miss your house and your neighbor is in the basement of their house praying for the same thing? Do you really believe God somehow decides to move the tornado and miss one of you and destroy the other person’s house? How would God decide who to choose?”
Okay, so it was more than one question he asked. But it broke my prayer life real good. And into the cracks of my broken prayer life rushed in a million other questions. Why would God choose to save this person from cancer but not that one? Why would God allow a war to happen in this country but not that one? Why didn’t God help some people who begged for better jobs, food on their tables, roofs over their heads, safety and health for their children?
I stopped praying for a long, long time. I’d say it took me over a decade to come back around to a place where I could pray differently. Where I wanted to pray again. Where I found a new way to understand the power of prayer. Where I got comfortable with having more questions than answers.
And I never would have started praying again if not for companions on the journey. Companions like Hannah, who teaches us to pray in these ancient words from the book of First Samuel.
Hannah, like many who pray, is a desperate woman. She longs for a child but no child comes. So many people have been in Hannah’s situation. To want something so desperately and to be disappointed again and again and again. It’s excruciating.
And we know that Hannah, of course, struggled in a context different than ours. Because in the ancient world, Hannah’s worth as a woman was pretty much predicated on her ability to produce children - especially male children. Because women existed for the entirety of their lives under the cover of male possession and protection - first their fathers, then their husbands, and, finally, if they outlived their husbands, their sons. A woman without a male family member to care for her was incredibly vulnerable.
I want you to pause for a moment and tap into Hannah’s desperation. Because her story is not just about wanting a child. It’s about wanting. And even if you’ve never wanted a baby like Hannah does, I’m almost certain you know what it feels like to want something desperately….and find yourself disappointed again and again.
I invite you to complete this sentence: I felt desperate desire when _______________.
You can comment on facebook or text me your answer at 785-380-7772 and we’ll share it without your name in the comments.
Feel free to keep those stories coming.
Hannah is desperate and she takes her desperation to the only place she knows of that’s big enough to handle it: God.
God. That space vast enough to encompass all our concerns.
God. That warm fire that sends tingles back into the frozen places of our lives.
God. That sharp inhalation of surprise and awe.
God. The one who has heard every cuss word humans have ever invented.
Who isn’t afraid of our tears.
Who sits with us when we no longer have words.
Who understands how prayer works even when we surely do not.
She leaves it all there in the temple. She prays so fervently that the priest thinks she’s drunk and admonishes her. Now that’s some serious praying, y’all, when the priest thinks you’re a bit extra.
Kathryn Shifferdecker says that Hannah’s ‘bold prayer, like the psalms of lament, is based on the assumption that God hears, that God cares, and that God will respond.” 
God hears. God cares. God will respond.
She leaves that day with a measure of healing. Nothing has really changed in her life. Not yet. She does not know if her prayers will be answered in the way she hopes. But she goes forth with the assurance that God has heard her prayer. And for Hannah, for now, that’s enough.
I still don’t really understand how prayer works. If you’ve been praying in desperation for a long, long time and you’re not as fortunate as Hannah was, I want you to know that you are not alone. I don’t personally think God is a gumball machine God where we put a quarter in and get a toy. I’ve known too many people who did not have an outcome like Hannah’s. And I bet you do, too.
But when people come to me and they feel desperate, I still encourage them to pray. And I still offer to pray with them. Because I still believe that prayer helps and heals.
Earlier this week I gathered with one of you to pray. No longer huddled by the lockers between periods, my prayers for each of you usually happen when I’m walking my dog, or laying down to sleep, or firing off a text-message prayer in the kitchen while waiting for my tea to brew. The prayer I’m about to share with you was one of those prayers: a text-message prayer for one who was feeling exhausted after KSUnite was disrupted by hate speech this past week.
And so I close this sermon on prayer with a prayer. Maybe it’s a prayer you need. If so, I hope you allow it to wash over you and sink into your weary places. And maybe it’s not where you are right now. If that’s the case, I hope you’ll fervently pray with me for those who DO need this prayer.
God of justice, God of the long-game, God of comfort, God of strength:
We pray today for your beloved children who are working to end the sin of white supremacy and other injustices in your world. The work is so important, God, and we are so very tired. It’s scary to see the hate and fear out there. Sometimes we feel downright hopeless. Often we feel exhausted. It’s hard to know the path forward. What can we do to really make a difference? We feel like we are a drop in a vast ocean of hate and we wonder if this evil will ever end.
And then we remember, O God, that we are not alone. We may only be a drop but when we join with others we become a vast sea of justice and peace and love.
Help us to SEE all the other drops out there alongside us. Help us to rest when we need to (after all, you taught us that Sabbath is a command, not a suggestion…and even Jesus practiced Sabbath). Help us to conserve our energy and use it when it matters the most. Help us to curse and cuss with friends who really “get it” and never let us lose sight of joy. Keep our feet to the fire, God….both to keep us focused and warm.
Most of all, God, give us hope. We confess that we have to have it to keep going. When we lose sight of it, please send helpers to remind us it’s still there.
May your justice flow down like waters, O God. May the voices and actions of those who hate be drowned out by a mighty torrent of your truth and justice. May your righteousness wash over us all like an ever-flowing stream.