(I’m slow this week getting a sermon out because I’m researching the career of Samuel. His entire career is speaking truth to power. What does this say to those of us who feel called to preach? I’m sharing some opening thoughts this morning and finishing up on Saturday.)
Any time I don’t like my job I remind myself that there are worse ways to make a living. When I was exercising at the gym this week I saw an entire show dedicated to dirty jobs on the Discovery Channel. A guy named Mike travels the country to see a new dirty job every week, which seems like a dirty job in itself. On the website you can track his exploits, and while some jobs are predictable, like road paving, cleaning fishing boats or Port-a-potties, you might not think about being a fireworks manufacturer. Imagine working all day with several tons of black powder in the room and you have to move slowly so you don’t set off any friction sparks. Did you know manufacturing tofu was dangerous? Think about how hard the spongy curd is to cut. Lots of tofu cutters lose finger tips. Or what about being a Veterinarian’s Assistant? You are always the one catching holding down whatever animal needs attention. (Remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom? Jim was always the guy wrestling with the boa constrictor while Marlin Perkins sat in the helicopter talking about how important it is to have insurance.) So if you are having a bad day at work, tune into the Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel.
Dirty jobs were on my mind because I felt terrible for the prophet Samuel in today’s First Reading. It turns out being a prophet is not as inspiring as the song “Here I Am Lord” makes it sound. Being buddies with the Holy Spirit is on par with manufacturing Roman Candles. Samuel’s first message from God is an oracle of doom against Eli, the chief priest, and his boss. We are never told Samuel’s thoughts about all this, whether he liked Eli or if he was afraid. Samuel left no writings like many other prophets, he just does what needs doing. Imagine God calling a small servant boy to deliver the power priest this message. Couldn’t God have worked up a burning bush for Eli or a clap of thunder to chasten the priests wayward sons? Why young Samuel? Perhaps the clue is the phrase, “The Word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Maybe no one else was listening.
Listen to the reason for judgment on Eli’s house. The priests sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are blaspheming by eating the choicest parts of the sacrificial animals, the parts that are to be given to God (1 Samuel 2:12-17), and Eli has failed to restrain them. Even when confronted by those who are offering the sacrifice, the sons of Eli refuse to give the fatty parts of the animal to God. This may sound like an obscure sin to you, but my assumption is that it is probably symbolic of many other abuses of power. Their appetites lead them to abuse their power, give insult to God and put their own desires above the needs of the people they serve. That is the problem.
Eli’s house falls dramatically. The Philistines attach Israel, and Hophni and Phinehas are killed in battle, and the precious Ark of the Covenant is taken. When Eli hears the terrible news, he falls over backwards, breaks his neck and dies on the spot. Hophni’s wife goes into labor, and just before she dies, she names her son “Ichabod” which means “the glory has departed.” (Can you still hear the fading chorus of “Here I Am Lord?” The story is spoiling the whole song for me.) This first episode foreshadows Samuel’s whole career, because he is the prophet who speaks truth to power.