As many of you know, my family and I live in Brookline. My oldest daughter, Rose, is a senior in high school there this year, and we wanted to let her graduate with her friends, and finish her program with the teachers and mentors she’s gotten to know. So, until we move down here next summer, I’ve been commuting. Driving back and forth between Cohasset and Brookline these past few months, I’ve been seeing a lot of things on the various routes, learning a lot about Hingham and Weymouth, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain. There is a rotary that I often go through on my way home, very near where we live, and the other night I noticed that it has a name, on a little green sign in the middle of the chrysanthemums planted in the center. I saw that it is the Paul Pender rotary, and I thought to myself as I drove around, I really would not like anyone to name a rotary after me. To have my legacy be one of those focal points of frustration, confusion, waiting while getting more and more anxious—anything but that! A plaque on a park bench or my name on a brick in a path, even a memorial cart at the grocery store, ok, just not a rotary. But we all want to leave a good legacy, to contribute something, to do and be something meaningful for others.
Hannah wants that, in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Her story is perhaps less well-known in our Bible, certainly less well-known than the Annunciation and Nativity story of Mary, even though that later story followed this one as its pattern, in many ways. Hannah is a young woman, who wants to take her place in the tribe, as a mother of the next generation. In that time and place that was a woman’s primary role, indeed, in a world where mere survival was extremely hard, that was every person’s role and hope for life: to be the ancestor of multitudes. In the shorter term, families needed to have healthy children to tend the land and take care of their elders.
But Hannah hasn’t been able to do this. She is married, they’ve been trying, but no children have come from their union. Because of this, Hannah is mistreated and mistrusted. In the understanding of the time, infertility was presumed to be the woman’s fault. Given the dangers of childbirth and high infant mortality, ancient societies ensured family survival by allowing men to have more than one wife. With such value placed on reproduction, competition naturally occurred between wives. Peninnah resents Hannah, probably thinks of her as less important and valuable in the household, and not deserving of the place she has in their husband’s affections. Hannah also faces the judgment of the priest, in the town where they’ve gone to attend a religious festival and make ritual sacrifices. She is clearly in distress, and he decides that she must be drunk. He doesn’t know her, but he doesn’t ask what’s upsetting her, he assumes that she is in the wrong. So by peers and authority figures around her, Hannah is assailed. Her situation is not all bad, however. She obviously has a tender, loving husband, who doesn’t criticize her or cast her aside, but talks with her, and wishes that he were enough, to make everything better. He asks, understandably, isn’t the love they share enough, to make her happy?
She loves him, and knows that he loves her, and that is a great blessing. But she wants to be more than loved. She wants to be useful, to be able to give. To be part of something larger than herself. That is what she asks the priest for, with breathtaking courage, and the promise that if she is able to have a child, he will be dedicated to God’s service, to the welfare of the community. And that is what she receives, when Samuel is born. It is her song of rejoicing at his birth, which we sang in place of the usual psalm today. She sings and prays, not about God granting her individual wish, but about God’s care for the whole people, which includes justice, and provision for the poor and vulnerable. Look at Hannah’s song, as I read the Magnificat, the song Mary sings in celebration of the coming birth of the Messiah.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
They are almost identical; you can see Mary’s song is an imitation or repetition of Hannah’s, both giving voice to the shared desire of these women, as individuals not important or valued, to be part of something greater than themselves, to be a small but crucial piece in God’s vision of justice and hope, to give themselves to God’s good will for all of Creation.
This Sunday we’re concluding our stewardship season, a time when we’ve been asked to think about our places in the community, about how we can be part of a bigger story than just our own, how we can contribute, and provide for the coming generations. We are grateful for the pledges that have been received, which we lift up in thanksgiving this morning. Now is the exciting time, for those pledges to take shape, in plans for the coming year. So learning about the name of that rotary made me go and look up Paul Pender. He turns out to have been a rather lovely person. He was born in Brookline during the Depression, he was a scrappy street kid who made his way out of poverty by becoming a boxer. He joined the Marines, and served them as a boxing coach. He became a firefighter, and continued to coach boxing at Norfolk Jail, helping inmates rebuild their lives and return to society. Paul Pender contributed so much, and touched so many people’s lives, leaving a legacy of service to the community in Brookline, which honoured him with that little green plaque in a garden in a rotary, right where it needs to be, a still center in the midst of this vibrant community he helped create. There is a community, a church, here in the center of Cohasset, because of the people on the plaques on our walls and in our memorial garden, and also others, known and dear to us in memory. What do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to build, and plant, what lessons do you want to teach, what stories do you have to share, what will live here, because of you? Let’s give thanks together for the chance to contribute, and let’s get to work!