From Clenched Fists to Open Hands

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Too often, we go through life with clenched fists holding tightly to the things of this world: our stuff, our reputation, our past, our fears. What if we opened our hands and held all things lightly? What might we give? What could we receive?

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

I Samuel 1:1-20

There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. 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.”

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The books of first and second Samuel are about Israel’s government and its politics, how they went from the time of judges to the time of kings.  It tells the story of their first king, Saul, and then the story of one of their most remembered and lauded kings, David.  But it is named for Samuel, the priest who anoints them both, and it begins as almost all stories do, with a woman, Samuel’s mother, Hannah.

There was a time in my life when I identified with Hannah, praying in the Temple, longing for a baby. Before the wildlings joined our family, (that’s our children by the way), we tried to have a baby for nearly a year. Just at the one-year mark, which is when physicians deem you officially infertile, we found out we were pregnant! Amazing news that we held joyfully and close to our hearts.

But about a month later, we lost the baby through miscarriage. It was devastating and hard, and every month that followed when we weren’t pregnant was hard in its own way, too.

During this time of waiting and hoping and longing, I wrote a prayer which I remembered as I sat down to write this sermon.  It included Hannah, Rachel, and Sarah, all women who struggled with infertility in the Bible. I saw myself in these women who longed for an end to their waiting.

Perhaps you, too, identify with these women. If so, know that you are not alone. Statistics show that 1 in 10 couples experience infertility, that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage.  Everyone knows someone who has been touched by this.

For Hannah, and these women in the Bible, however, their longing was deeper than just a personal desire.  When we see their position through a historical and cultural context, we understand better just how much Hannah was suffering. Because you see, she may have wanted a baby, but for women in her time and culture, not only was it a private wish, it was a societal expectation and what gave women of her age value and worth. We could argue that’s still the case now, but it was blatant and unchallenged back then.

Hannah was lucky to be with Elkanah who seemed to love her regardless, but other members of her family may not have been so kind. Layered on top of what Hannah wants is her understanding of her worth and what others expect from her.

So, for most of us living in the 21st century, it is a little harder to understand all that Hannah brings with her before God.  But we can all understand desire.

The Mirror of Erised is a fantastic relic from the Harry Potter books, and it is a mirror which, according to Professor Dumbledore, shows the “deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.”  The name “Erised” is “desire” spelled backwards, as if reflected in a mirror. And it is said that the happiest person in the world would look in the mirror and see a reflection of them, exactly as they were.

I imagine there are very few of us who would simply see a reflection of ourselves, exactly as we are, because most of us know at least a little bit how it feels like to be Hannah, to long for something, to wish for something, to pray for something.

Perhaps, for you, it is not a baby. Perhaps it is a job, or a relationship, an acceptance letter to your favorite university or grad program.  Maybe it’s housing stability, or freedom from financial burdens; maybe it’s good health for you or a loved one. Most of us can identify, on some level, with Hannah in the first half of her story, pleading, praying, hoping and waiting.

It’s the second half that might be harder to relate to.

The whole first chapter of First Samuel is about Hannah. Chapter two is the last time we hear from Hannah. In it, she prays a prayer, much like Mary’s song which we often hear during Advent. Hannah, like Mary, sings of a God who turns the world upside down, who lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, who feeds the hungry, and remembers those who long for a different kind of world. I won’t read her prayer this morning. But I will read the second half of the first chapter.

Listen now for the Word of God:

The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.” Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him.
When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli.And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore, I have lent him to the Lord; if he lives, he is given to the Lord.” And she left him [Samuel] there for the Lord.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

So after all that waiting, after all that desire, once the baby is weaned, she gives him back to God.

Hannah makes a short appearance in our scriptures, but her story of deep longing and incredible sacrifice has endured through the generations. Somehow, Hannah went from clenched fists, desperately praying to God, to open hands, offering back to God all that she had.

Last year, during the Advent season, we were invited during the prayers of the people, to make a tight fist. I invite you to do that with me now. Clench your fists and just hold them there just like that.

Too often, we go through life with clenched fists, holding tightly to the things of this world, holding onto our reputations, to our power, to our material things, to our pasts, to our fears.

But God invites us to open our hands, open your hands with me now. What if we opened our hands, let go of our control and fears, and held all things lightly.

You see when our hands are balled into fists, not only are we unable to give; we are unable to receive. When we open our hands, we can both give and receive.

You know, each and every one of us were born with the reflex to close our hands. In babies it’s called the Palmer Grasp Reflex. It is in our nature, when something triggers us, to grasp tightly.

As we grow older, we learn when to grasp and when to open, when to hold on and when to let go. But I imagine when we are afraid, when we are sad, when we are angry or struggling, it’s easy to return to that primal reflex. The more we trust in God, rest in God, put our faith in God, however, the more we are able to resist that urge.

As we grow in age and in faith, as we mature in our relationship with God through Christ, we are able, more and more, to go from clenched fists to open hands, to resist the urge to grasp tightly and to, instead, hold lightly.

Now, unlike Hannah, our greatest desires may not come true. But if we live with open hands, holding lightly all that God has already entrusted to us, then perhaps we can look beyond just our wants and seek to meet the needs of one another, acknowledging that yes, there is pain in the longing, but that there is also gratitude and joy in knowing that God is with us through every step of our journey, in times of plenty and in times of want.

Now, there may be some of us here today who are living day to day with food insecurity and housing needs. The fact that poverty and hunger exist in a nation as wealthy as our own is an injustice that needs to be righted. We will not use scripture today to justify or pacify oppressive policies and systems that keep people in a constant state of need.

But I will say that all of us, no matter how much or how little we have, are called by God to live out of our abundance, to live out of our gratitude, and to give what we can, joyfully.

During the Adult Mission Trip, last week, I spoke with someone at the church where we worshipped. I told her we’d been so well fed on this trip that I was in constant state of feeling full. And for those of you who know me well, that’s quite a feat.

She replied, “It’s funny isn’t it? The poorer the people are, the more they offer you and the better they feed you, verdad?” I agreed, which is not to romanticize poverty, but to simply affirm that those who have little often have the capacity to give so much, while those who have a lot can often be afraid of losing or giving even just a little.

Hannah went from having a mentality of scarcity, of not having enough and not having what she wants, to a mentality of abundance and gratitude.

I believe this began even before she gave birth to Samuel. I think it happened during her prayers. Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

I think, as Hannah prayed in the Temple, her clenched fists became more and more open.  Slowly, she was able to understand that all that she had and all that she would receive belonged to God any way. That’s why when the time comes, she is able to give Samuel into the keeping of God.

All parents, at some point or another, do this, by the way, either through our own accord, or through our children prying our fingers away from their lives.  Our children ultimately belong to God, that’s what we declare at their baptisms.

The psalmist writes, “The earth is the Lord and all that is in it. The world and those who live in it.”

If it all belongs to God any way, who are we to pretend that we own it, that it’s ours to give or withhold?

One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve received, parenting or otherwise is this: “Love Deeply. Hold Lightly.” The two are not juxtaposed to one another. Rather, they are complementary; they belong together.

Love deeply God and all God’s creation. And hold lightly to all that is passing and of this world. I think of all who I’ve encountered this past week who have loved deeply and held lightly. Of those who’ve lost everything in Paradise and in the wildfires, some just barely escaping with their lives, forced, through the fire, to live lightly. Of those migrants we met in Nogales, Sonora, traveling as lightly as possible, with all of their earthly goods stuffed in backpacks with the hopes for a better life for themselves and for their children. Their love compelled them to travel lightly.

What would you take, if you had to travel that lightly? If fires, or death threats, or poverty made you flee your home? Our mission team will share some of what was found in the desert by people traveling lightly. The one item that gets me every time, other than the baby bottle, is a small, well-cared for Bible, underlined with notes written all along the edges. Someone thought this item was valuable enough to make the long trek away from home. What would you bring? What would you carry in your backpack?

The reality is, when all is said and done, as people whose true home is not of this world but found in God, there’s very little we can take with us and really nothing more we need than God’s love and our love for one another.

On the mission trip, we heard and held the stories of so many people. Please come to the Library Lounge and hear some of these stories following worship.

But after I returned, as I sat in the haze and smoke of the Camp Fire, right here in San Francisco, I heard the story of Jose Uriarte, an immigrant who made it across the border and started a new life here in Northern California. Jose left his small city of Mocorito, Mexico, and like so many, migrated north, across the U.S./Mexico border with hopes and dreams. He landed in Chico, CA and started a small business called Gordo Burrito. Later, he added a taco truck. His small business is open every day except Sunday when he takes the day to rest and, as he puts it “Be with God.”

But last Sunday, this immigrant from Mexico, took his taco truck, drove it through a thick fog of smoke to a parking lot of an old Elks Lodge where hundreds of displaced Californians had taken refuge, and from there, he gave out free food to anyone who needed it. He served over 300 meals that day, on his one day of rest.[1]

He’s there again this morning, giving of his time and of his resources to help others. He doesn’t have much, but he does have a taco truck. And he’s using it to serve others.

When we say, “Love your neighbor,” we mean be like Jose. When we say, “Give your life and all you have to God,” we mean be like Jose. When asked about why he’s doing this, he responded, “It’s the least I can do.”

Friends, today is Commitment Sunday.  It is the day we ask that you make a commitment, a commitment to God, to God’s people, and to this church: a commitment to unclench your fists and to live with open hands and open hearts, a commitment to live generously and to hold lightly to the things of this world.

If you feel forced to give, if you feel obligated to give, if you are giving with clenched fists, that may be good enough for the church, in fact, go ahead and pledge. Please do.

But I guarantee you, that’s not good enough for God. God looks into our hearts and wants a cheerful giver, one filled with gratitude and thanksgiving, one who cannot help but give knowing how good God is, one who loves deeply and holds lightly.

And so, let us all, with hearts full of gratitude and joy, in this place and throughout our lives, raise a song of thanksgiving to a God who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us, and who still guides us on to the end of our days. Thanks be to God. Amen.



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