Sermons

1 Samuel 3:1-20 / Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17/ John 1:43-51

I’ve always loved this reading from First Samuel – full of drama and excitement, mysterious voices in the dark, and the dawning realization that something momentous is about to take place. A young boy, Samuel, born miraculously to his mother Hannah who had given up hope of having a child, actually hears God speak to him, actually encounters the Most High, although it takes him a while to figure it out. When I was a child, I heard this as affirmation that all of us, no matter how young and inexperienced, can hear and respond to the call of God. I still believe that, with all my heart.

This time around, however, it was not Samuel but Eli who caught my eye and my heart. Eli, the tired, almost blind servant of God, is going through something just as Samuel is – he is being brought to the feet of God, called to a reckoning, called to repentance and renewal in a way so quiet that we might just miss it. But we’d better not miss it, I think – in our own day, when visions are also not widespread and the word of the LORD is thought to be rare, we can learn from one such as Eli. We might even be Eli, just as much as we are or will ever be Samuel. This is a story about both of them – not just a story of new discovery and hope, but about vision that has shrunk to the limits of human fear and is crying out for restoration.

What I love about Eli is this: he is a deeply flawed and messed up person who has time and time again failed to align himself with God’s purposes, and yet, finally – finally – he gets it. Eli is a guardian of the Ark of the Covenant, a priest and offerer of sacrifices to the LORD, mentor of the next generation in Israel, someone entrusted with the well-being of the people. And yet he has failed to rein in those who have been using their position for unjust gain and missed just about every potential blessing God has put in his way. Eli is pretty much a screw-up.

When Hannah, the future mother of Samuel, had come to pray to the LORD, her heart broken and her eyes full of tears because she could not conceive a child, Eli treated her with scorn, thinking she was drunk. When Eli’s own sons, priests like their father, grabbed all the best meat from the sacrifices for themselves and behaved like scoundrels, Eli reprimanded them, but that was all. He gives lip service to the truth, but turns a blind eye to what is happening, and lets the damage continue.

The call to Eli is essentially going to voicemail, and no one is picking up or returning the call. No wonder God decides to try another number. Maybe someone else will listen. Perhaps someone else will see what is going on and actually respond.

But back to Eli – why did he stand out for me this time? For the same reason that particular biblical characters always stand out for me – because I see myself reflected in them. Eli hasn’t committed any transgressions himself, and says all the right things, but he doesn’t do anything about it.

I’m a lot like Eli. I see, but I don’t see. I hear, but I don’t hear. I speak, but only in the company of those who won’t demand anything of me. On this weekend honoring Martin Luther King, Jr, I especially wonder how much, like Eli, I don’t see, despite – or because of – my privileged vantage point. And how much I choose not to see.

For years we had a beautiful Orthodox Christian icon hanging over the dining table – it was of the Last Supper, with Jesus breaking the bread that is his Body and sharing the wine that is his Blood, surrounded by all his disciples. For years I saw it, every time we ate a meal. Years went by, and I never noticed one very important detail – how Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, out of all the disciples, had dark, dark skin. How Jesus and the rest of his saintly companions had light skin. And I never noticed.

Until someone, rather awkwardly, pointed it out to me. I was grateful, but also full of shame. How could I not have seen it? The answer was obvious, of course – because I didn’t need to see it. It didn’t affect my reality, as a person of racial privilege. I was blind because I could afford to be, just as Eli could afford to be, for a while, blind to the pain of those whose suffering was caused by his sons, and which he had the power to alleviate. Because he wasn’t the one perpetrating the outrage. Because it didn’t affect him. Or so he thought.

No wonder Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what he had heard from God, that Eli was going to have to face what he had ignored for so long. That kind of truth is hard to speak, and even harder to hear. So I’m both pleased and amazed that Eli is ready, after all these years, to hear God’s words of judgment.

His courage is unlikely, and probably too late, and yet it is beautiful, and moving to me. Eli is ready to hear the truth, asking Samuel, “What was it that he told you?  Do not hide it from me.” And when Samuel tells Eli that his sons will die because of their – and Eli’s – sins – the old priest can finally take it in: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

Eli heard the same message years earlier, from a man of God who condemned the greed and complacency of Eli and his sons. For some reason, Eli couldn’t, didn’t, really hear it. But he heard it from Samuel. Maybe Eli was finally ready – maybe, as his eyesight dimmed and his strength diminished, he knew that there was not much time left to bring his life round right. Or maybe it was because the words came from a boy who had sheltered and prayed and eaten and slept in Eli’s care since he was weaned. Maybe the words had to come from someone Eli loved – and who loved him.

Whatever the reason, the armor is pierced, and Eli is broken open. God has always seen him for what he is, but now Eli is able to face the truth.

So, back to us, here and now, in this place, this city, and in a nation still largely unable to face its own history of racial oppression as well as its continued legacy of white supremacy. What are we afraid to hear about ourselves? What pain do we not see because we have the luxury of ignoring it? And how, like Eli, do we let God finally break us open?

One thing I know is that we do this together, and we do it with both honesty and love. Here at St. Paul’s, a quiet day is being planned for Saturday, March 3rd around the issue of racism: our own struggles with it, our need to make space for truth and transformation, our longing for God to show us the way. There will be space for prayer and meditation, sharing and listening, perhaps even tears and laughter. Whatever happens, it will be an opportunity to face ourselves, to come to grips with our brokenness, to speak and listen in love for the truth that God would have us hear. I hope you’ll consider participating, if only for a few hours. We can’t do this alone – we need each other, and we need God.

In other words, we need to do this as Church – as the Body of Christ in the world. We do this as Church because we need to hear God’s call in the night, when we cannot completely see the way forward. Like Eli, we find the courage to hear God’s judgment, because the LORD has, as the psalmist wrote, searched us out and known us; knows our sitting down and our rising up; discerns our thoughts from afar. We do this hard work as Church because we know that God sees us in all our blindness and complacency, and loves us too much to leave us there.

If there is a time in our nation to move beyond saying all the right words to actually doing something, it is now. When hateful speech about people and nations of color flows from the highest levels of our government, and when ever more cunning ways are devised to make sure the votes of people of color don’t count, we’ve come, like Eli and like Samuel, to a point where sleeping is no longer an option, if it has ever been.

Last summer our presiding bishop, the Right Reverend Michael Curry, reminded us of who we are, especially in the face of racism. He wrote: We who follow Jesus have made a choice to walk a different way: the way of disciplined, intentional, passionate, compassionate, mobilized, organized love intent on creating God’s Beloved Community on earth.

I’m still like Eli – I’m still scared, still afraid of what I might see in myself and might be asked to do.

But I’m ready to say, “Do not hide anything from us. Speak, LORD, for your servants are listening.”

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