Text: 1 Samuel 1:1-16
Presbyterian Welcome Retreat for LGBTQ Folks Called to Ministry
July 27, 2012
Rev. Scott Clark, preaching
So this Hannah . . . she is a troublemaker. Here she is, standing in the middle of the temple. She is weeping. She's not really speaking out loud -- she's sort of mumbling She's looking a little drunk, a little crazy. And she's making Eli, the high priest, very uncomfortable.
So Eli tries to shut Hannah up.
He tells Hannah to sober up and quiet down.
And Hannah says, "No." I am not drunk. I am praying to God and I will pray until somebody hears me. I am praying out of my deep anguish and despair, and I won't be silenced.
You go, Hannah.
Now, Hannah has good reason to be in deep anguish and despair. She is living her life in a place of deep oppression -- a place of almost no power in her culture, in her family, in any and all of the systems and structures in which she lives and breathes. For starters, Hannah is a woman. And in this ancient patriarchal world, women are treated like property. The patriarchy values women primarily for their capacity to bear children, and we find out early in the story, Hannah has had no children. And to make matters worse, her husband's other wife, Peninah, has had plenty of children -- and Penninah doesn't mind reminding Hannah of this all the time -- taunting Hannah -- bullying Hannah.
This is Hannah's world.
And to make matters worse, every year, the whole family takes this trip to Shiloh so that the husband, Elkanah, can sacrifice in the temple. And after Elkanah makes the sacrifice, he divides up the meat -- and Penninah gets her share, and then an additional share for each and every one of her many sons and daughters.
And then there's Hannah, and she is due to get her one share. But Elkanah -- who is not a bad guy -- and who does love Hannah very much -- gives Hannah a double share -- two shares. One for her, and one for her grief. And while the family feasts, Hannah weeps. She doesn't eat. SHe just weeps. Hannah is beaten down by all this. Day in and day in, this is what she has to live with -- all this oppression, all this power-over her, all this taunting.
And then one day. One day. The text says that Hannah does something remarkable. The text says that, One day. Hannah stands up. One day, after they had been eating and drinking in the temple, Hannah stands up. Brought to her knees by all that she has to suffer, Hannah sits in the temple and weeps. And then one day, Hannah stands up. She stands to her full height. She claims her grief; she claims her full dignity. And she speaks to God. She prays to God and she offers God a deal -- God, if you give me a son, I will dedicate his life to your service. Hannah speaks to God expecting God
- to see her, and
- to recognize her full humanity, and
- to answer.
One day, Hannah stands up.
But her prayer looks kinda crazy. And so Eli comes over, seeking to restore peace in the temple, and Eli tells her to simmer down, and to sober up. And Hannah says, "Oh no. Oh hell no. I am praying out of my deep anguish and grief, and I will pray until somebody answers.
And then one day, Hannah stood up.
And that is where Mieke and the planning team have cut me off. That's the end of the story for tonight. We'll hear the rest of the story tomorrow. But this is a great place to stop for now, and to really listen to Hannah's story.
Because I don't think it's too much of a stretch to place ourselves in this story -- to see in this story some truth that resonates with the experience of LGBTQ folks in the church. We are here present in the church. Like Hannah, we know a thing or two about what the brunt of power-over feels like. The church has just barely started to recognize our call to ministry and our ordination. Even with the official barrier to ordination removed, we know that it is still not easy. LGBTQ folks still have to make it through the ordination process, through the questions, through the scrutiny. Some presbyteries will ordain us, some won't, some might.
And then there's marriage. The national church has failed so far to recognize the full dignity of our relationships and our families -- and though I believe the day is coming, it is not here yet. And like Hannah, year after year -- or for us every 2 years after every 2 years -- we go to Shiloh. We go to General Assembly -- and we listen to those who oppose marriage and ordination say some really really demeaning things about us.
But day by day, step by step, we stand up. We know Hannah's anguish and her grief, and we stand up. We come out -- step by step. We speak out -- each in our own way. We show up -- right there in the midst of the church -- in the midst of our families -- in the midst of our world -- and we stand up.
So as we are spending this weekend with each other, sharing our stories, I want to say three things about Hannah's story -- about what her story might have to say to ours. About what our stories might have to say in conversation with hers.
And the first thing is this: When we stand up, when we show up in the church, we person the issue. You see, Eli knows in his head the issues that Hannah is dealing with. He knows how his culture works -- what the rules and values of his religion are -- he knows where the power is and where it isn't -- he knows how badly their world treats women, especially women who haven't had children. But he doesn't have to think about those realities every day. He doesn't have to do anything about them. He doesn't have to feel it or see it. He can just sit at the door of the temple and do his job.
But when Hannah stands up, she persons the issue. When Hannah stands up, and prays and speaks out of her anguish and her grief, the reality of her life -- her story -- is embodied. It is in the room. Right there in front of him. And Eli has to see. He has to feel it. He has to think about it. Eli has to do something about it. There Hannah is -- standing in the midst of the temple -- personing the issue:
I am here. I am present. I am human.
And this personing the issue sets something loose in the world. I actually learned this phrase from lesbian evangelist Janie Spahr. Early in my seminary experience, I was traveling with Janie to do a bus tour of progressive churches in Alabama. On our way to Alabama, we were delayed in Houston for a long while, and Janie tried to give me an idea of what to expect on our trip. Janie said, "We go into these churches to person the issue. For some folks, we may be the first lesbian or gay person they have met. For some folks, we may be someone like them. And as we tell our stories; they will start to tell us theirs."
And that's what Janie did, she walked into the room, and she said, "Well here we are!" She told her story, and then she listened, and as the conversation went on, folks opened up, and they told their stories. Stories that they may never have spoken before in a church, or in their family. Janie personed the issue, and told her stories, and others told theirs in response. Janie stood up, and she helped other people stand up.
We do this in so many different ways. When we claim our gender identity or our intimacy affinity, and share the truth of us, we person the issue. When we say to someone in our family, I'm gay or I'm trans, we person the issue. When we mention a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, or a husband or wife -- when we talk about what our families look like -- families put together in an infinite variety of love -- we person the issue.
One day, Hannah stood up.
The second thing about Hannah's story is this: When we stand up, when we show up, when we tell our stories and person the issue, it may hurt. No, let me say that even more plainly, at some point, it will hurt. Hannah is very clear. She is standing up, and she is praying out of her anguish and her despair. Hannah's life is hard and she has felt deep pain. And when she tells the story of her life -- when she persons the issue -- she brings part of the pain into the present moment.
And I say that not so that we will feel an obligation to dwell in our pain or to constantly relive it -- we want healing for that pain. We want to be healthy about this. I say that so that we will be ready when the pain comes -- ready to set boundaries of what we are prepared to share -- ready to lean on each other, and to support each other -- ready to ask for the help that we need.
I think back to the courageous way that the couples testified in Janie’s trial a couple years ago. The church charged Janie with marrying 16 same-gender couples when those marriages were legal in the state of California. And when we went to trial, those couples came and they testified. It was amazing. They testified about what marriage meant to them. They testified as to the pain that they had suffered at the hands of the church – several of them were pastors, some of whom had been driven out of the Presbyterian church. And they testified to their joy in marriage, one couple told this amazing story about their wedding: They had already had a church ceremony, so when marriage became legal they decided to get married in Yosemite – and the story of that day involved driving up a mountain, right into a snow storm, finding shelter and getting married in a Park Ranger station, with the Park Rangers, right under a photo of . . . George W. Bush.
They couples personed the issue. And they shared their joy. And they shared their pain.
One day, Hannah stood up. And what she said and what she prayed flowed out of a place of deep anguish and pain -- even as it moved her and the world around her -- to healing. That's the second thing.
And the third thing is this. And please listen carefully to this one. As we stand up, and as we person the issue, and as we speak out of our deep anguish, it is not our responsibility to make those around us feel comfortable about their own transformation -- their own struggle at having to face the reality of the world, to maybe give up some privilege, and to change. That is their work. We do have an obligation to engage them in love. But it is not our responsibility to make folks feel comfortable --particularly if it means staying in oppression or avoiding the change that sets people free.
When Hannah stands up in the temple, and begins to weep, and mumble her prayer -- she freaks Eli out. Eli is uncomfortable to say the least. Eli sees her embodied, personed pain -- and he doesn't know what to do with it. People are starting to stare. He thinks she must be drunk. And he tells her so. Sober up. Eli who has all the power is uncomfortable.
The easy thing for Hannah to do would be to sit back down. Stop making a fuss. Easy for Eli. But where would that leave Hannah? She could sit back down, shut up, go away. But where would that leave her and women like her? It would leave them in deep anguish and pain. That's where.
If we sit back down and wait, it leaves us right where we started -- sitting and waiting. For Hannah, it would leave her oppressed and taunted. For us, it would leave us not allowed to serve.
- Not allowed to claim in community the full dignity of our families.
- Not allowed to grow freely into our calling.
- Not allowed to become all that God has created us to be and do in the world.
And we have to watch our tendency as a community to do this. I was talking to Janie once, and she said, "that's what we do." Queer people. We know what it's like to be hurt, and we don't want other people to hurt, and sometimes we translate that into avoiding discomfort or avoiding the necessary struggle that comes with transformation. We want to protect folks from that. So we don't tell them uncomfortable things, or we don't ask them to take a risk for change.
I didn't want to come out to my parents. But then I met this guy. Who would become my partner and husband. And I wanted them to know. My need to move forward with my life – as a whole person – became more important than my need to have folks around me feel comfortable. And so I drove from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama. We sat at the kitchen table. And I came out. And you know what? It was uncomfortable. They told me that they loved me, and it was uncomfortable – not what they had expected. And it was uncomfortable for several years. But we stuck together. We are family, and we stayed in relationship, and I got to know them better, and they got to know me better, and they got to know Jeff, and we are a family now – a whole family. This fall they will come and visit with us for about a month.
It's what we do. We want to help people not be uncomfortable. But here's the thing: It actually doesn't help. When we stand up, and person the truth of injustice, we give folks the chance to do something powerful -- to join in God's work for freedom and liberation. And when we try to protect folks -- even the people we love -- from the discomfort of transformation, we actually do them a disservice. It takes away a chance to do something powerful. It slows our own healing and freedom. It also slows theirs.
One day, Hannah stood up.
So when we stand up and person the issue, it's going to hurt, and it's going to make folks uncomfortable. Why in the world would we want to put ourselves through this?
So here's why: because this is the way that God is liberating the world. By empowering folks like us to stand up. Folks who don't have the most power-over. Folks who have the least.
And my friends this is biblical. (Now, I'm sorry because I'm going go all exegetical on you.) But let's look at this story in its broader context. 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel -- this is the story of how God establishes the house of David, and establishes this little people Israel, protecting them from the world around them -- from all that would do them harm. Out of the chaotic world of the Judges, God is establishing something new. And it begins with Hannah standing up. This is how God is liberating the world. The least powerful helping God change the world.
OK, now think of the Exodus story. How does that story start? With Moses in the bulrushes? No, it starts with two women named Shiphrah and Puah, midwives who stand up to Pharaoh and say, No, we won't participate in your genocide.
And the Jesus story (well, the Jesus story in Luke at least). It begins with Mary -- with Mary standing up and saying, "My soul, my life, magnifies God -- who brings down all power-over, and who lifts up the lowly." My soul, my life, my story -- magnifies all that God is doing to liberate the world and set it free. These are the major liberation texts in the Bible, and each one begins in a patriarchal world with a strong woman (or women) standing up.
When we stand up, when we person the issue, when we speak out -- out of our deep anguish and pain -- out of our great joy at finally being fully alive-- when we stand up to our full height, and say,
I am here, I am present, I am human, this is my story -- when we stand up, we accept God's invitation to join her in liberating the world.
It is THAT important.
And now I want to practice. Let's give it a try. On my cue, I want us to stand up. Together. You see, Hannah knew what it was like to be pushed down, to be left out, to be bullied. Hannah knew what it was like to live a life out of sight from the world -- her deep anguish and pain ignored, even mocked. Hannah knew what it was like.
And then one day. One day. Hannah stood up. [stand]
Friends, I want you to look around. Look at this community standing up. After this weekend, we'll go back to our homes -- and life will be very real -- and standing up may not always be easy -- whether it is saying something courageous on the floor of General Assembly -- or whether it is just holding the hand of the person we love -- or saying to a friend or a family member or a work colleague, "You know what, I'm a lesbian. I'm trans. I'm bisexual. I'm gay." It may be scary, maybe a little painful. Folks might be uncomfortable.
But I want you to look around and remember this: When we stand up, we are never standing alone. We are standing with Hannah, and with Shiphrah and Puah, and with Mary, and with all the folks in the world who have ever been held back or pushed down or ignored. We are standing in the company of all the saints. We are standing with each other. We are standing in the power and the love of God -- God's power with us and for us and in us.
THIS is how God is liberating the world.
Hannah knew what this was like. And one day, one day, Hannah stood up.