Sermon, January 17

Readings for this Sunday may be seen here. 

When our reading from First Samuel begins, Samuel is a child living in the household of Eli – who was the semi-retired priest of the holy place at Shiloh. This was before Jerusalem. While we’re only two chapters into the first book of Samuel – who as the end of our reading foreshadows, grows up to be one of the great prophets of Israel – a lot has already happened that I think is important. This coming summer, we’ll have a lot more readings from the books of Samuel – so we might as well know Samuel’s origin story. 

Samuel’s father was named Elkanah. He was prosperous enough to have two wives, which was allowed in that time and place. And he was pious enough to visit the holy place at Shiloh every year, and make a sacrifice there. Elkanah’s wife Peninnah had many children, but Hannah, his other wife, had no children, and it made her bitterly sad. Peninnah would tease her cruelly about it, as well. Elkanah loved Hannah deeply, and would try to comfort her, saying, “Why do you weep, dear heart? You have me. Aren’t I more precious to you than ten sons?” But Hannah yearned for children of her own. 

So one year when the household was at Shiloh to make sacrifice, Hannah went into the temple there by herself, and began to pray from her heart, weeping bitterly. She prayed, “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant and give me a son, I will dedicate him to your service for the whole of his life.” 

Now Eli was sitting near the temple door. He heard and saw Hannah, and he thought she was drunk, and rebuked her. But Hannah said, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled! I am not drunk, but I have been pouring out my soul to the Lord.”  Then Eli – somewhat abashed, one hopes – said, “Go in peace, and may God grant you what you have asked.”

Hannah went home, her spirits lifted. And soon after that – Hannah became pregnant. When her son was born, she named him Samuel, which means, “God heard.” Because, she said, I asked God for this child – and look: here he is. 

Hannah kept her son with her as long as he was nursing, and then – probably when he was about three years old – she fulfilled her vow and took him to Shiloh. She presented him to Eli and said, “My lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying for this child. God has granted my petition; so I am loaning him to God, for as long as he lives.” And she left him there for God. Hannah sings a song of exaltation and praise, plus a little bit of revenge, which bears a striking resemblance to the Magnificat, Mary’s song of faith, which we sang often in Advent!  – Mary, and/or Luke, surely knew the books of Samuel well. 

Hannah went on to have three more sons and two daughters. But her firstborn was always in her heart. Every year, Hannah used to make him a little linen robe and take it to him, when the family would go to Shiloh to make sacrifice.

So that is who Samuel is – and why he’s living with Eli. We don’t know how old he is when God begins to call him by night – but he could be quite young, five or six or seven. 

I love that story and I want us to have it in our hearts when we come back to Samuel the grown-up prophet in a few months. But those first two chapters of First Samuel tell us some important things about Eli, too. I said earlier that Eli was the semi-retired priest of Shiloh. He had handed on most of the work of serving at the Temple to his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. And his sons were not good people. 

In fact, the text says, they were scoundrels. They had no regard for God or the duties of the priesthood. They were only interested in taking the food people brought to offer to God. They’d send their servants to take food from people before the people had even finished making their offering. They’d also pester and assault the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. They were rude, impious, and greedy, treating both the Temple and the people with contempt. Hophni and Phinehas did not think much of God, and God did not think much of Hophni and Phinehas.

Now, Eli knew what his sons were doing. He told them, “I hear terrible reports about you. Why do you do such things? You must not sin against God in these ways!” But of course, this doesn’t even make a dent in their behavior. “Ah, the old man, he’s so uptight.” 

Then Eli receives a prophesy. A stranger, a man of God, comes to him and tells him,  “Look, God chose your ancestors to serve God as priests – but when a family treats its holy ancestral calling with contempt, that family will lose its holy calling. Your sons are doomed; and I will raise up for myself a faithful priest.” 

When God tells Samuel, “I am going to fulfill all that I have told Eli about his house” – his family – this is what God is talking about. 

And then, not long after that, little Samuel starts to hear someone calling his name at night. 

It would be easy to look at today’s lectionary texts and preach about call. About vocation. The idea that God may at any time tap us on the shoulder – or whisper our name by night – and say, I have something I need you to do. Or, simply, Follow me. In our Gospel we see Jesus beginning to gather – to call – disciples. And I have preached this 1 Samuel story before as a text that reminds us that young children may hear God’s voice and follow God’s call. I believe that wholeheartedly!

But today I want to talk about Eli. I want to talk about being willing to hear the bad news about yourself. 

Samuel doesn’t want to tell Eli about God’s message. Probably because he loves Eli, rather than because he fears punishment – the text suggests a tenderness between them. But Eli presses the child: “Do not hide it from me!” And when Samuel tells him that God’s judgment on his household is coming, Eli speaks with what Robert Alter calls pious resignation:  “God is the Lord. Let God do what seems good to God.” 

And then there’s Psalm 139. The first few verses could sound reassuring, comforting – “You trace my journeys and my resting-places… you know every word on my lips.” But then we start to get a sense that being known so profoundly could be uncomfortable. “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” In the heights of the heavens, the depths of the underworld, the ends of the sea – Even there, says the Psalmist, your right hand will seize me. I can’t even hide myself in darkness, for to you, O God, darkness is as bright as day. The Psalmist goes on to say, You’ve known me since you were secretly weaving me together in my mother’s womb – how could I hope to hide from you? 

This psalm is attributed to King David – and that fits really well. David had some moments in his life when he might well have wished God weren’t watching. More on that in a few months. But he also seemed to find relief in coming clean with God. Like Eli, when God sends someone to tell David the bad news about himself, David listens. And then there’s this odd little conversation in our Gospel! 

Nathanael is skeptical about Jesus because he’s from Nazareth. But he comes with his friend to meet him. Jesus says, Here comes an Israelite who never tells a lie! Nathanael says, We’ve never met. How do you know me? Jesus says, I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you. And Nathanael says, Rabbi, you are the Son of God! 

Was Nathanael just impressed by Jesus’ ability to see – to see a man sitting under a tree, far out of his sight; to see into the heart of a man he hasn’t met before? Or is there more here? Is the fig tree – or whatever happened under it – significant? Is Jesus telling Nathanael that he knows the best – or the worst – about him? There’s lots of speculation out there, but we’ll never know. All we know is that Nathanael – like David, like Eli – balks a bit at being so thoroughly seen, but then accepts it with awe and gratitude. 

The past months have told us, collectively, a lot of hard truths about ourselves. The rampant spread of the pandemic has shown us how little we understand our interconnectedness, or truly value our neighbor’s lives. The broad-daylight murder of George Floyd by a police officer forced some of us to face the systemic violence against black and brown bodies that is woven into the fabric of our national life. The riot at the US Capitol last week showed us how easily violent words can become violent actions. So many of us are weary and heartsick from months of seeing with painful clarity the brokenness of our common life – on top of dealing with the logistical and emotional and financial impacts of it all. 

Hard truths are hard. But all our church’s practices of confession and repentance – individual or collective – begin with being able to name what’s amiss, what’s broken, burdensome or binding. With being able to name with some specificity how what author Francis Spufford calls the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up (or HPtFtU) is at work in my life, the life of my community, and the place where my life intersects with the life of my community. 

Being able to flee from harsh realities, to hide bitter truths in a closet, only sounds like mercy. The true mercy is in being seen, and known, with love. Spufford writes, “A consolation you could believe in would be one that … didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves… A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it.”

Later in his book, Unapologetic, Spufford talks about church. About worship. About prayer. And he talks about – in worship, in prayer – knowing himself seen and known by God. By a Presence that “takes no account, at all, of my illusions about myself… It knows where my kindness comes checkered with secret cruelties… It knows where my love comes with reservations .It knows where I hate, and fear, and despise. It knows what I indulge in… It knows the best of me, which may well be not what I am proud of, and the worst of me, which is not what it has occurred to me to be ashamed of… It knows all this, and it shines at me.” 

He goes on, “I can’t bear, for very long at once, to be seen like that. To be seen like that is judgment in itself…. Only, to be seen like that is forgiveness too – or at any rate, the essential beginning of forgiveness.”

After such an encounter with that gentle shining, that profound knowing, Spufford asks, “Do I feel better? It depends what you mean by ‘better’…. I don’t feel cuddled, soothed, flattered; I don’t feel distracted or entertained.… I have not been administered a cosmic antidepressant. I have not had my HPtFtU removed by magic…. Instead, I have been shown the authentic bad news about myself, in a perspective that is so different from the tight focus of my desperation that it is good news in itself; I have been shown that though I may see myself in the grim optics of sorrow and self-dislike, I am being seen all the while, if I can bring myself to believe it, with a generosity wider than oceans.” 

Believe it or not, Lent starts one month from today. (Our nation begins a new season even sooner – a season that will continue to call for our attention, our commitment, our yearning for better.) Lent is a season when the Church invites people into reflection, self-examination, repentance and amendment of life. 

Friends, it is not too early to begin thinking prayerfully about whether there is some fast or discipline, some new practice or new learning that you feel called to take on, this Lent. If the idea of keeping Lent is new to you, or if you’d welcome a conversation to think about a Lenten discipline in a fresh way, let me know – or ask a church friend to meet and talk! 

Maybe Lent in the year of our Lord 2021 is an apt season to think about – to wonder, to discern – what repentance and amendment of life might look like not just in my life, but the life of my community, and the place where my life intersects with the life of my community. 

I often think of an evocative image from the letter of James – he says: Don’t be like someone who looks in the mirror, then walks away and immediately forgets what they look like. 

Don’t look in that mirror, then walk away and forget what you look like. 

We have looked in some hard mirrors as a nation this year, dear ones. May we not look away. May we not forget. May we feel that that boundless generosity, that gentle shining, beside us – beneath, above, behind, before us – as we allow ourselves to see, and to be seen. May truth give us courage. May love give us hope.