A sermon preached at Southminster’s Sabbath service
October 14, 2017
1 Samuel 3
Last week, we were with Israel in the wilderness, as they received manna after complaining to the Lord about dying from hunger. In the intervening generations between that story and this one, Israel has settled the Promised Land, planted their own fields and vineyards, and raised up judges to rule the people.
You may be familiar with the story of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who poured out her soul before God, praying for a child. Eli was the priest who thought she was drunk, before he realized what an honest pray-er looked like. God granted Hannah just what she needed, the birth of a son, not unlike the way God had provided manna in the wilderness.
And Hannah gave Samuel back to the Lord.
‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’
There is faithfulness. And then there is faithfulness. When we think of giving back to God the thing we can’t imagine doing without, relinquishing a child back to God—it is a perfect trust borne out of pain and hope and love.
I’ve wondered if Hannah would have made the same decision to leave Samuel with Eli if she’d known about Eli’s sons. And maybe she did know about them. Because they were horrible people, and people complained about Eli’s sons and their behavior. They would steal offerings. They showed no respect to the office of priest or to the people the were to serve. They disrespected God and they disrespected their own father.
Actually, I wonder what Eli thought when she showed up with a 3 year old and entrusted him to his care. Did he feel qualified to raise this child after failing so miserably with his own?
In the face of human frailty and brokenness, the faith of Hannah, the persistence of Eli, are all the more noteworthy.
And Samuel grows up in Shiloh with Eli and his deadbeat sons, serving God. We’re told “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread”.
Don’t rush past those opening words from this passage. Some days, the miraculous stories of scripture seem far from our lives and experience. We feel visions are few and far between. God’s word seems silent.
Samuel knew of that experience too. He was ministering to God, even though the preacher’s kids in his church were jerks, even though visions were not widespread, even though he’d never had his own personal encounter with God—he was ministering to God.
Sometimes faith is a clearly answered prayer or a visit from an angel. Sometimes faith is going through the motions without a clear expectation that anything might even happen. There’s no indication Samuel was expecting God would speak to him. We’re told: Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him
When God first calls Samuel’s name, Samuel doesn’t ignore the voice. He just doesn’t think it would be God at the other end of the phone. He goes to Eli, waking him up, to ask what he needs. “I need to sleep without being woken up” is what I might have said the first couple of times Samuel popped in saying “Here I am”.
Eli eventually wakes up enough to realize what’s happening and sends Samuel back with an action plan.
God has already instructed Eli to expect judgment because of his inability to correct the wickedness of his sons. Eli offers us a different view of faithfulness than Samuel’s mother does. Her faithfulness is at the moment when everything goes well, after her beloved son is born. Eli’s faithfulness is through the time everything falls apart, after his beloved sons sin in the eyes of God. Eli never stops serving God, even as his sons descend into wickedness and as he hears about God’s coming judgment on him and his family.
Eli continues to minister to the people, continues to care for Samuel. And even though he is waiting for God’s judgment to be announced, he still sends Samuel in to receive the message. Eli shows a kind of faithfulness in the midst of the train wreck of his life.
“Samuel, my son, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me.”
There is grace and courage in facing things straight on, without apology or excuse. No matter your failings in the past, it is never too late to face the truth. Eli responds to the bad news with: ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
As Eli’s story ends in tragedy, Samuel’s story rises out of its ashes. We’re told, “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground”.
This story has me thankful for the people who have helped me figure out it was God’s voice I was hearing in my life. Religious communities–churches, or temples at Shiloh, are imperfect places filled with imperfect people. Like Eli’s sons. Like us. And yet, while I understand why people leave organized religion these days, especially when American Christianity seems to have aligned itself so closely with one political agenda, I’m even more grateful for those of us who stick it out. Not because we’ve figured it all out, but because God spoke to Samuel in the middle of just such a place.
When we show up in worship, and, let’s face it—there are plenty of other things we could be doing—we put ourselves in a particular kind of community. A messy, imperfect, loving, sacred community. And some days we get it right. And some days we are like Eli, not knowing how to clean up our messes, but here, nonetheless.
I think about the call of Samuel and the mess of his faith community, I think, with gratitude, of you.
In the book Accidental Saints, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber, writes about how she sees God through imperfect community:
“I realize God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I am an asshole,
and when I am confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies,
and when I am unable to judge the sin of someone else (which, let’s be honest, I love to do) because my own crap is too much in the way,
and when I have to bear witness to another human being’s suffering despite my desire to be left alone,
and when I am forgiven by someone even though I don’t deserve it and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel,
and when traumatic things happen in the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting,
and when I get changed by loving someone I’d never choose out of a catalogue but whom God sends my way to teach me about God’s love. These things….are born in a religious life, in a life bound by ritual and community, by repetition, by work, by giving and receiving, by mandated grace”.
I’m thankful to be here with you, listening together for God’s voice, and trusting that whatever God calls us to do, we will help each other through it. Amen.