I Samuel 3:1-20
Think for a moment about the most important things that have happened in your life. Were they researched, chosen, and carefully planned? Did it involve check lists, deadlines and clearly defined targets? Or did it feel more like something chose you? On your road to one journey you were sidetracked into something that became more important. You were in the right place at the right time. It was fate, love at first sight. You didn’t know what else to do so you followed the path in front of you. Somehow, something, someone…God, or randomness, serendipity, or the Holy Spirit opened the door and you walked through it.
I am a planner and a strategist at heart, and yet most of my life has unfolded through a series of chance opportunities – people I met, or fell in love with, opportunities I fell into, doors I knocked on were closed and others opened right beside me-and I went through them. A biographer could see it as random, or the work of the Holy Spirit, depending on the world view. Is it chaos, serendipity or providence? I made choices all along the way, but still ponder how life choses us first.
This is the reality for Samuel and the calling of prophets. His future is shaped from birth. His mother Hannah, was barren and rejected, but was then blessed by God with a son. In gratitude, she dedicates Samuel to God and as a young boy he lives in the Temple and serves Eli, the elderly chief priest. This is a lovely story, and we could think that young Samuel is set for life in service to God in the Temple, but he doesn’t get any choice. Think of his childhood. Did anyone play “hide-and-go-seek” with him? Did he ever play baseball? Where would he get his first kiss?
I imagine Samuel’s childhood was challenging. The text tells us “The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread.” Why would that be? Doesn’t God speak in all times and places, calling people to create the divine vision of the future? Well, only if someone is listening.
The passage tells us that Eli’s eyes were dim. What Eli could not see is the corruption of his two sons. They used their influence for wealth and personal retribution, so no one had confidence in the priesthood. I Samuel says that Eli’s sons would take the choice meat that was to be sacrificed to God and they would eat it for themselves. While strange to our ears, when people don’t respect the rituals and customs of their work, they likely disrespect the purposes behind the ritual too. Eli’s sons treated their work as belonging to them rather than God, and they enriched themselves. The public trust is important. There is a problem when public service becomes a path to wealth, when elected officials become millionaires in office, or promote their golf courses and hotels, and then clergy bless it all. The word of the Lord becomes rare in those days.
When God decides to speak again, choosing a young Samuel means everyone else has capitulated and God is moving to the next generation. When Samuel hears a voice in the night, he has no context of divine speech, so he assumes Eli called him. If there is no listening environment for creative speech, challenging questions are discouraged, honest wrestling treated like unwelcome dissent, then a community stops talking about what really matters.
Eli is not a total failure. His one act for good is to tell Samuel, this is God trying to speak to you. Next time you hear the voice say, “Speak for your servant is listening.” He finally spoke one sentence that matters, a sentence that still resonates centuries later. Samuel learns to listen for God, and he becomes the first great prophet of Israel, he will anoint Israel’s first king, Saul. This is the first in the line of prophets, stretching from Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Jeremiah and Isaiah, to John the Baptist, to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Luther King, Jr. When society enriches the powerful against the weak, God responds by raising up prophets.
I’m ahead of the story because Samuel is only a boy. God asks nothing from him other than to watch. “I am about to do something that will make peoples’ ears tingle.” God pronounces judgement on the house of Eli and his sons, and they will be dealt with. What a burden for young Samuel to carry, for God’s action is years in the future, Samuel is a young adult with Eli dies. God is telling him where things lie, and to watch and listen and be ready. The call is simply God awakening him to terrible reality, and the work comes later.
Often this is where God’s work with us begins, in the awakening to a terrible injustice. Remember, Jesus begin his ministry in Luke with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, the year of Jubilee…” Sometimes we hear God when we just can’t stand the situation any more. Our ears were closed, our eyes were as dim as Eli, until reality breaks loose. Few people really want to be a prophet and speak truth to power, and I worry about the people who do want it.
I like to build people up and I want you to leave Sunday morning more hopeful than when they came. But hope has to pass through truth first. How long do we watch as the social safety net is torn apart, the disabled mocked, women disparaged as sexual objects to be grabbed, white supremacists and Neo-Nazis praised, queer people denied humanity, and entire nations mocked as if they produce more manure than we do.
We are about to raise money for Haitian school children, so let’s be clear why Haiti is a difficult place to live. It is not simply because of earthquakes and hurricanes and bad luck. Haitians led a successful slave rebellion against France in 1804. Napoleon Bonaparte threatened to invade unless Haiti paid reparations for loss of land and capital for French investors. This bankrupted the country for a century. Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines into Port Au Prince in 1914, because Haiti owed big debts to US banks, and Wilson feared German influence in the Western hemisphere. They marched in and took all the gold and gave it to Citibank for safe keeping. For the last century the US supported dictators like Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, overthrew Jean Bertrand Aristead in 1991, to make Haiti safe for the US Sugar industry. Since Haiti has no oil, the island was deforested for the sugar refining process, and soil erosion has left Haiti without the means to feed the people. Even the way we send aid to Haiti in their time of need, it is often counterproductive and harmful, as UN efforts created a cholera epidemic and food aid actually depressed prices for Haitian farmers and left them poorer.
It may be a small thing in the face of all this to raise money for 20 children to go to school, but it is because we hope they will grow into doctors, nurses, teachers or engineers for Haiti. Sending Haitian immigrants home could have dire consequences. I knew many Haitian in my first congregation in Providence, who came to church for an English as a second language program. They worked in the jewelry factories for low pay, often 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, and you could see the burns on their skin from handling dangerous chemicals. They sent money back to Haiti to support their families. In fact, immigrant workers worldwide send over $325 billion home, which is larger than global development aid from wealthy countries. This hard work and sacrifice should be admired. The most hopeful responses to the impoverished debate in Washington, is the outpouring of stories about immigrants’ contribution to our country.
This is not simply a problem of hearing vulgar and disparaging comments about immigrants from poor countries, and an apology will suffice. It is more than a complex social and policy problem. It is a moral and theological imperative. It is our task to proclaim that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, that we are all linked together in common destiny, and that denying the full humanity of anyone is not only wrong, it will diminish us all.
To be Christian in a time such as this is to proclamation of beloved-ness. You’re an immigrant? Beloved. You’re queer? Beloved. You’re black? Beloved. You’re a woman? Beloved. You’re disabled? Beloved. You are white and trying to responsibility come to terms with your power and privilege in a world of dire inequality? Beloved. A church, imperfectly yet passionately devoted to living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Beloved.