Pouring Out Our Soul - Sermon on 1 Samuel 1:4-20

     During our worship together last week, we were led by the “director,” so to speak, of Psalm 107 through several scenes.  These vignettes, through several broad, sweeping motions, invited us to ponder the ways that we, as God’s people, have cried out to the Lord who then showers us with steadfast love
     We wandered with the “wanderers” who found no way in the desert wastes
          until the Lord led us by a straight way to an inhabited town. 
     We sat with the “sitters” who sat in darkness and in gloom
          until the Lord brought us out and broke our bonds. 
     We loathed with the “loathers” who could not bring themselves
     to receive their God-given nourishment
          until the Lord sent out his word to heal us. 
     We staggered with the “staggerers” who were at their wits’ end
          until the Lord brought us out from our distress and gave us quiet.
     Today’s lectionary passage, however, gives us no generic participles to describe groups of people in common situations.  Rather, we have a name, a person, a beloved and specific child of God:  Hannah.  But this specific child of God has a very specific problem:  the Lord has closed her womb.  While the inability to have children is a certainly no less a source of grief today as it was in the days of Hannah, our modern culture does not view this condition with the same social stigma with which it was in her days.  Back then, a woman who could not conceive was considered worthless, a good-for-nothing waste whose physical barrenness mirrored the devastating public humiliation of a person without a purpose.
     A few weeks ago, we experienced the irony of the story of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, whose name meant “son of honor.”  Likewise, this passage is steeped in irony for this woman who is considered cursed and purposeless is called Hannah whose very name means “God favors me.”  Clearly not, it would seem, for not once but twice the author of today’s passage reminds us that the Lord had closedher womb.
     Peninnah, her rival as another wife to Elkanah, has no such problem.  She, the author of today’s text tells us, has many sons and daughters; fitting perhaps for a woman whose name means “pearl.”  The focus, however, is not on this “pearl’s” sons and daughters but rather upon her incessant taunts and snares directed straight at Hannah, as if she needed a reminder, had her womb closed by God.  It is just too much; she weeps and does not eat, and goes to the house of the Lord to pray year after year after year after year.  Like the folks we met in Psalm 107, she cries out to the Lord in her distress.
     This day must have felt like every other, crying out to God for the umpteenth time, returning exasperated and saddened from hearing nothing in reply only to return home to the cruel barrage of insults from that “pearl” of a woman, Peninnah.  This time, however, she prays at Shiloh.  The time period of today’s story takes place towards the end of the period of Israel’s judges and just before the period of her kings.  The judges, you might remember, were leaders of Israel whose stories are familiar to us; Gideon, Samson, Deborah and the like.  The kings of Israel to follow were Saul, David, Solomon and then a number of others after the nation split.  In the interim period, in which we find today’s story, Shiloh was the central place of worship for all of Israel.  This is where the entire nation gathered for feasts, celebrations, worship, sacrifices, and the like.  Therefore, this place in which we find Hannah pleading with God is no private worship space, no solitary meditation chapel or prayer room.  Rather, this is the place where the Israelites come to worship.  This cry was a public spectacle!
     Perhaps this is the reason that Eli is concerned with her behavior which does not come across as decently and in order.  As she prays silently, only her lips move.  Therefore, Eli accuses her of being drunk.  However, this assumption by Eli is quickly corrected when Hannah replies to her with a clever, evocative, and heartfelt pun that no drunkard could ever muster.  “No, my lord,” she answers, “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.”  Pouring out my soul.
     I began working on this sermon thinking that I would frame this story as nothing more than a concrete example of the generic stories that we journeyed through last week in Psalm 107.  A child of God is in distress, the person (whether a wanderer, a sitter, a loather, or a staggerer) cries out to the Turner, the God of abundance, and is delivered by the Lord from her distress.  Now, that being said, Hannah’s story does seem to fit rather seamlessly into this salvation narrative.  The Lord hears her cries, brings forth life to her barren womb, and makes Hannah to conceive and bear Samuel, a great leader in the future of Israel’s history.
     However, if we limit this story to this truth alone, important and vitalizing as it is, we lose the specificity of Hannah, the nuances of this story that challenge us to go deeper.  Hannah’s little phrase “I am not drunk, I am pouring out my soul before the Lord” does just that.
     As I was preparing for this sermon, I ran across an article by Marcia Mount Shoop, a pastor up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  She says that this passage has many layers of meanings but at the end of the day, it is really a story about being “spiritually awake.”  She continues to say that “her prayer of groaning makes her an icon not simply of the mother of a son who is prophetic and powerful, but of a human being who knows herself to be known and loved by God.”
     Perhaps, then, today’s passage is about worship for, after all, worship could be defined as that act when we “present” ourselves to the Lord, where we know we are known and loved by God.  Hannah, in her pain and in her suffering and in her lament, knew where she needed to go.  She needed to rise up and present herself in the presence of the Lord.  Hannah knew that she needed to present none other than her real self, not some prettied-up, tamed, restrained, moderate, meek, costumed, masked self.  But her real self in all of her humanness, in all of her beauty and all of her pain, in all of her strength and all of her weakness, in all honesty.  Hannah knew that worship was not a time for her to “sprinkle” out her soul to the Lord.  This was no time to “drip” out her soul to the Lord.  No, Hannah’s worship in this public place of Shiloh was where she knew she needed to pour out her soul to the Lord.  Hannah knew what it was like to be “spiritually awake.”
     We have a lot to learn from Hannah for we, you and I, are not always spiritually awake during the act of worship.  Hannah challenges us to be honest with ourselves as we move through the journey of worship with all of its mystery and grace, its questions and its answers, its bread and its wine, its praise and its lament.  Hannah’s honesty in her worship challenges us to rethink the way we worship and present ourselves before the Lord in our very own Shiloh here as this worshiping community.
  • Take the moment of the “Call to Worship” – during this moment we are gathered in the presence of the very God who created everything, who called Moses through a burning bush, who rained fire from heaven at Mount Carmel, who names us and loves us and knows every hair on our head, who alone possesses the power to both create this world and bring it to an end!  Does our embodiment of this moment reflect the “spiritual awareness” of Hannah?
  • Perhaps we need to rethink the way we confess our sins in light of Hannah’s wisdom.  After all, what is confession if it is not pouring our out souls to God and confessing that which we do and that which we are that prevent us from living as we should.  We confess to God, knowing that, if left to our own devices, we would forever be tormented in the hellish fires of our own depravity.  After that, we are assured that through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ we have been no less than plucked out of the jaws of death to live as a redeemed people.  Does our embodiment of this part of worship reflect the honesty of Hannah?
  • Or perhaps look at the prayer for illumination.  A musical prayer for illumination from Nigeria has the congregation singing “wa, wa, wa, emimimo, wao, wao, wao,” which means “Come, come, come, Holy Spirit, come immediately, come right now, come this very minute!!”  Hannah asks us if our prayer for illumination reflects this desperate need of the Holy Spirit to make any sense out of this mysterious and salvific word of God.  
  • Finally, perhaps Hannah would challenge us to look at the mindset of our Affirmation of Faith.  When we stand to profess that in which we believe, we proclaim the truth.  We stand in defiance and proclaim the Way, and the Truth, and the Life in the midst of a world that screams lies in our faces veiled as truth.  It is no small thing that we stand together to proclaim our allegiance not to the lies of this world but of the truth of the world that was and is and is to come under Christ our King!  Does our embodiment of this defiant prayer reflect the defiance of Hannah as she defends her actions in the temple at Shiloh to an ignorant Eli.

     Friends, in my time with you it has become clear that the family that is Silver Creek Presbyterian Church has had a long and rich history of meaningful worship.  There is certainly no lacking of faithful worship in your history!  But in the rough and exciting waters that we are navigating, how might we take courage from Hannah and come before the presence of the Lord in new and creative ways that awaken our “spiritual awareness?”  How might we more fully embody our entire selves into the worship we are called to do?  How might we pour our souls out to the same God who heard Hannah’s cries and restored life to her barren womb? 
     Perhaps Hannah’s faithful worship reminds us of the need to keep our eyes open.  And perhaps not only our eyes but our ears, mouths, hearts, minds, and arms as well!  Hannah will remind us to pay attention for she was not the only woman who carried a gift from God within her womb.  For as we approach the season of advent, we will be reminded of another woman who poured out her soul to God in order that she might bring into this world a savior who would pour out his soul for you and for me.  So in the weeks to come, as we prepare ourselves yet again to welcome into the world the savior who first welcomed us, remember Hannah’s courage and be not afraid to pour out your soul to God.  For I announce to you that the very God to whom you pour out your soul is the very God who will turn around and fill it with life!  Thanks be to God!


Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.