Friedl Dicker Brandeis was an Austrian artist of remarkable range born into a Jewish family in 1898 in Vienna. She studied in Bauhaus and excelled to the degree that she taught courses herself. She worked in theater design and textile design. She designed toys. She taught art to children, worked as an art therapist, and painted still-lifes, landscapes, and portraits in a surprising number of styles. In 1942 she was deported to the Terezin concentration camp, just northwest of Prague. In 1944 she perished in Auschwitz.
Between 1942 and ‘44, Dicker-Brandeis continued to teach children in Terezin and continued to create works of her own. Discovered later, the children’s works and her own have been displayed in Berlin, Prague, and the United States. Despite their desperate circumstances, the children’s poems and paintings are often bright and lively, splashing colorful butterflies across fields of flowers. In 1944, one of the children from Barracks L 318 or L 417 wrote On a Sunny Evening, a poem that ends, “If in barbed wire things can bloom, why couldn't I? I will not die, I will not die."
Why is it that we embrace such indomitable spirit and clasp it to ourselves? It is because we know despair and pain and loss. We know Hannah’s despair and pain and loss. We may never have heard of Hannah until this morning, but we know her because we know ourselves and we know ourselves better because we know her.
Hannah was the first wife of Elkanah and was very aware of her responsibilities: to bear not just one son but as many as she could. It’s important that we not look at her despair through the eyes of the 21st century, where sexual discrimination or patriarchal behavior is speared at first sight, but through Hannah’s own eyes. For Hannah, her failure was a bottomless shame, a crushing loss. After 10 years of childlessness, the husband or the wife was to arrange for a second wife so that children would be born, their name continue in history, the tribe could be strengthened for work, for righteousness before God and for war, and, most important, so that the couple could fulfill the command from God to be fruitful and multiply. Everyone knew of Hannah’s failure of herself, her husband, her tribe, and God.
Hannah’s initial pain and loss crush her, but there is more: her husband adores her, and rather than being secure, she feels even more unworthy. The second wife Peninnah uses her fruitfulness to ridicule and mock Hannah’s barrenness. According to ancient interpreters, Pennihah tormented Hannah with taunts. “Are you going to wash your children’s faces to get them ready for school?” “Are you going to be waiting for your children when they come home?” And, when it seems nothing can make her life more of a living hell, when she goes to a sacred place to talk to God, the priest Eli accuses her of drunkenness. Is this what you expect if you visit a sacred space?
I’ve been surprised by the number of visitors and new members who have told me they love this space we are in. They tell me that the space calls them into prayer. It calls them into tranquility. They feel God here. They feel we are all with God and that St. Mark’s is a place where prayers are heard, where we are held in God’s hands, where we experience peace.
Hannah looked for such peace in Shiloh amid the Ark of the Covenant. “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.” “I am a woman deeply troubled…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 … all this time.” In short, Hannah is a broken woman who has put all her cards on God’s table, her hands empty.
Novelist and essayist William S. Burroughs II has written, “Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.” Have you had to stand naked before God with no more answers, ideas or plans, a ruin with empty heart and empty hands? Have you had to wait in emptiness? If you have been there, you know. If you have not yet been there, you will discover the depths of your soul and your pain. And you will know that, because there is a vacuum of silence and darkness and emptiness, and because you have put yourself in God’s presence, the breath of life can whoosh in. Like Hannah, your countenance is sad no longer, and your suffering heart begins to heal.
No one wants to lose everything that matters to them. I pray that your road to realizing that God is here, God is always here, is a short road, and I pray that you have the grace you need to travel it no matter how far.
In our Gospel portion this morning, Jesus teaches the lesson that Hannah has lived for over a decade by engaging his disciples’ imaginations in the unimaginable: the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem. From their Mount of Olives vantage point during Passover, they see individual temple stones that are 33 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 13 feet high. They see some monumental stones dragged and positioned that are 65 feet long and 10 feet high, weighing 400 tons. The historian Josephus wrote two millennia ago that the gold on the temple walls "reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who tried to look at it were forced to turn away.... It seemed in the distance like a mountain covered in snow, for any part not covered in gold was dazzling white."? Surely, the disciples could not begin to envision the destruction of this Temple, this residence of God, this pride of the Jewish people. The disciples are horrified and press Jesus for more information. Jesus answers with warning about false prophets and further suffering, not what the disciples hope to hear.
The disciples grasp at a meaning that Hannah lives and understands. Whether devastation occurs in the interior of your heart or through national upheaval, whether you are called to further pain by a Peninnah or a false prophet, whether you are laid naked through inner death or cataclysmic upheaval, God is there. And God promises us and delivers the birth pangs that bring us to new life in him.
Paul encourages us to remember, 19Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary … let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith ….And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, [and] encourage[e] one another… all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
After all, If in barbed wire things can bloom, why couldn't I? With God, I will not die, I will not die.
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