I’ve told you this before: before I was your pastor, I worked for Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi. In fact, I worked for the Mission when I was ordained. And not long after I was ordained, something amazing happened.
I was visiting the Mission—I spent most of my time working from my home here in Iowa and from the road—when the woman who directed our food pantry and emergency assistance program came to my office. She had a client in her office who was distraught. And she wanted to know if I would come to her office and pray with that client.
And that struck me as strange. It struck me as strange for a couple of reasons.
First, no one at the Mission had ever asked me to come and pray with a client before. I know that they had clients who wanted to pray. They had simply never asked me to pray with them.
Second, and I said this to my colleague, there was nothing that was keeping her from praying with her client. God doesn’t see a difference between her prayers and my prayers.
But I also knew why she had asked me. And I knew why she had asked me then, but never before. I was now ordained. And despite the fact that she knew that God could hear her prayer just as clearly as he could hear mine, there was a part of her that saw me as someone with more authority. There was a part of her that saw me as someone who God would listen to.
There was a part of her that saw me as a kind of mediator between her and God. There was a part of her that saw me as a priest.
And that’s weird. Because we’re protestants and congregationalists and we don’t have priests. We left them behind with the Protestant Reformation. We said that we were democratic and that everyone had equal access to God.
But it turns out that it is hard to let priests go.
In today’s reading from First Samuel, we are in the days before there was a king in Israel. We are in the days before there was a great temple in Jerusalem. We are in the days when the people did what was right in their own eyes, families made their own sacrifices to the LORD, and there were different temples in different cities. And one of those temples was in Shiloh.
And in today’s reading from First Samuel, we hear two stories… intertwined.
On the one hand, we have Eli, the high priest of the temple in Shiloh. Now, the high priest has many responsibilities. But this is a time when all proper worship included sacrifices. And if Eli had a nice, printed-out, bullet-pointed list of his responsibilities, ‘oversee sacrifices at the temple’ would be right there… at the top… in bold letters.
On the other hand, we have Hannah… who is nobody. You see, there’s this man named Elkanah, who has two wives. Hannah is one of them, and Elkanah loves her, but she hasn’t had any children. And Peninnah is the other wife, and she has had children. And Peninnah mocks Hannah relentlessly. And Hannah is distraught.
Watch how the stories loop around each other.
Eli is sitting on his seat near the temple door when Hannah, fresh from Peninnah making fun of her, comes storming in. And she kneels and breaks down and rocks and sobs and prays to the LORD.
“O LORD of hosts,” she says, “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 nazarite until the day of his death.”
And a nazarite is a person who has made a vow to God and set themselves apart. They do not drink alcohol, or eat anything with grapes, or cut their hair, or go near corpses or graves. And while this is usually for a set length of time—like a month or a year—Hannah is promising to set her son aside as a nazarite until his death.
She is saying, “If you give me a son, O LORD, I will make him a living sacrifice to you.”
But Eli doesn’t hear this. He’s just sitting on his seat near the temple door when this woman comes storming in. He sees her fall to the floor, kneeling and rocking and sobbing. And he sees her lips move, but he doesn’t hear what she is saying.
And at the top of his list of job responsibilities—in bold letters—is ‘oversee sacrifices at the temple’. And nowhere on that list does it say, ‘console clearly distressed woman who stormed into the temple and fell to the floor and started kneeling and rocking and sobbing.’ And I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t even think it fits under ‘other duties as assigned’.
So he assumes she’s drunk. And he interrupts her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”
And she replies, “I am not drunk. I am troubled. I am pouring my soul out before the LORD.”
And Eli answers her, “Then go in peace; and the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And he doesn’t know it, because he didn’t hear her, but what he is saying is, “May God accept the sacrifice you have promised.”
And what is happening here is so important. Hannah is not a priest. She is not the head of her household. She has no right to offer this sacrifice. But she does offer her sacrifice, and the high priest of Shiloh blesses her sacrifice, and God accepts her sacrifice, and she bears a son to her husband, and she names him Samuel.
And I won’t tell you Samuel’s story here. But it’s a good story and he becomes an important man. And he only shows up in the story because Hannah stormed into that temple in Shiloh… and prayed… and made her living sacrifice.
And that matters. It matters because it shows us that even in those days when there was no king in Israel, even in those days when there was no great temple in Jerusalem, there was no barrier between God and God’s people. A woman in distress could walk into a temple and pray… and God would hear her and answer her.
Our reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews takes it even further. In this reading, we are in the days when there was a ruler in Israel, and it was an occupying empire. And we are in the days when there was a great temple in Jerusalem, and priests made sacrifices to God there. We are in the days when there were priests to serve as mediators between God and God’s people.
And earlier in the epistle, the author of Hebrews gives us that priestly job description, with the words right at the top, in bold letters: “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
But in today’s reading, writing to the early Christian community, the author of Hebrews wants us to know that there is only one mediator between God and humanity: Jesus Christ. And he wants us to know that Christ has made the sacrifice that ends sacrifices.
And that can be hard for us to understand. It can be hard for us to get, because we do not live in a world of temples and sacrifices. We aren’t used to taking a portion of our livestock or our crop to a great temple in a big city and watching a priest burn it on an altar.
But today is Stewardship Sunday, so maybe we can get it a little bit.
There are people who talk about giving to the church like those gifts are sacrifices. There are people who will tell us to take a tenth of what we make—gross, off the top, before taxes and debt—and hand it to the church as a way of returning the first fruits of our labor to God. And there are people who will tell us that, somehow, that transaction, that payment, makes up for our sins.
And what the author of Hebrews wants us to know is that Christ has made the sacrifice that ends sacrifices. The good news of Jesus Christ is that any payment for our sins has already been made; that we are free from the burden of sin.
And the author of Hebrews wants us to have all of the confidence of Hannah… and more. He wants us to know that we can walk right into the temple, through the way that Christ has opened, and stand before God in faith and hope. And that God will hear us and answer us.
And that the gifts we give are gifts of joy and gratitude and thanksgiving.
Now, I need to be clear about something. I am not saying this to demean my friends and neighbors who are Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican. We have priests in this world and in our religion, and they are doing amazing things.
And I am not saying this to put my own job at risk. I am not the mediator between you and God, but I do useful things. And one of those things is this:
I stand here at this pulpit and tell you that you can have all of the confidence of Hannah and more. No matter where you are, you can walk into the temple of God. You can stand before God in faith and hope. You can kneel before God in desperation. You can weep before God in distress. And God will hear you and answer you.
If you want me to pray with you, I will pray with you. But my prayers are no weightier than yours. Yours carry the weight of the world.
If you want me to serve you a meal at this table, I will serve you that meal. But the words I say are no different than yours. You can eat every meal in remembrance of the one mediator between God and humanity.
This is, perhaps, the best news of all: that there is nothing standing between you and God. Hallelujah. Amen.