Meg Peery McLaughlin
January 17, 2021
1 Samuel 3:1-21
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’* and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down.6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,* and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’
15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ 17Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. 21The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.
This is such a feel good story. It is for me, at least.
It brings me back to a time when I felt a deep belonging in the church,
sitting among youth group or PCM friends singing the hymn Here I am, Lord.
At that time it was number 525 – in the Blue hymnal.
This story reminds me of all the sermons and bible studies
I’ve sat through about saying YES to God
even in the middle of the night.
I remember preaching once about the different Eli’s in our lives,
those spiritual mentors who in their own special way
have tuned our ears for God’s voice. Yes, I love this story.
I was somewhat relieved when it popped up as the lectionary text this week.
Next week, we’ll start a new sermon series, but this week, what to say?
This week, as we reel in the aftermath of last week; what to say?
No guest preacher to lean on. Not my husband’s turn.
So as my fingers found 1 Samuel 3, I breathed the same happy breath
I used to breathe long ago when I would find hymn 525 printed in the bulletin.
Yes, I thought, this will work. Thank you, Holy Spirit.
I started dreaming about how UPC could gather around the holy questions
of how we can listen for God in these days?
how we can, like Samuel, have the courage to be God’s messengers in a messed up world?
I started connecting Samuel the prophet to MLK, Jr, a modern prophet.
The sermon started writing itself in my mind.
And, then, well, maybe the Spirit doesn’t like this preacher,
because something else in this text began to haunt me.
I like to imagine the church in Samuel’s shoes:
the ones fresh and energetic enough to wake in the middle of the night
to respond to the word of God.
I like to model us after the prophet who will speak ear-tingling truth, I mean,
doesn’t this nation need ear-tingling truth right now?!
But that wily Spirit would not leave well enough alone.
That’s not the whole of the story, she whispered, over and over again.
If I had tunnel vision on Samuel,
maybe I needed to broaden the scope back to Eli.
Eli had been a faithful priest—he was the one who heard Hannah’s prayer the decade prior
when she’d begged God for a child, a child she would eventually name Samuel.
Eli’s eyesight had grown dim, but he was still able to perceive that it was the Lord calling the boy.
Eli had his own boys, too.
Hophni and Phineas. And in the previous chapter we hear they are “scoundrels.” They slept around and they ate the choicest parts of the sacrificial animals that were to be given to God—an abuse of their power, as preacher’s kids. They threatened violence to fellow worshippers. And as one scholar put it, “Eli refused to restrain them.” That’s the thing. Eli himself hadn’t made the bad decisions, but he’d been complicit in the face of it. Perhaps he hadn’t known how to confront them, they were family after all? Perhaps he was just weary of the whole situation.
It is no wonder to me that Samuel would rather not tell Eli what he heard from God that night:
how God was angry about all the disobedience and disrespect,
how the door to Eli’s power was about to slam shut.
Perhaps Eli sensed his hesitation
which is why he directed Samuel not to hold anything back.
And then, remarkably, upon hearing those hard heavy words,
Eli says “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”
Eli doesn’t get defensive. He doesn’t cast blame elsewhere. He doesn’t deny anything.
He listens. He heeds. He lets the words in. He lets them be.
And that, that right there may be the gospel we need today.
There may be some in this church that are itching
to go out into the world to bear the message of God’s justice.
Some who are primed to lay down some ear-tingling truth—
charging out to the drum beat of ole’ 525: HERE I AM LORD, SEND ME!
But I wonder, if the Spirit may also be asking us to listen first,
to even accept hard and heavy truth.
Biblical Scholar Timothy Simpson suggests that “The sad truth is that, for most of us, in our lives,
we’re much more like the doddering Eli,
having lost sight of what our mission is,
and unable to listen to anything that might correct us.”
I wonder if this week,
before we slam our toes down into Samuel’s shoes, we might slip on Eli’s first.
Could we, church, will we be willing to receive news that we don’t really want to hear?
Not defensively, not anxiously, but openly?
And in light of this past week, this past year. . . .
instead of saying This is not who we are
instead of staying I am not racist
instead of saying We need to heal and move on
What if we accepted
that while what we have witnessed is not who any of us want to be as Americans,
it is who we’ve been and who we indeed are,
that racism is part of the air we breathe, the laws we uphold, the stories we inherit
that to move forward: truth must come before reconciliation.
And what if, like Eli, we allowed some doors to close?
Let the door close on having to be “right” all the time, especially when it at the expense of others,
and instead practice humility.
Let the door slam shut on holding on so tightly to our power, profit, and privilege,
and instead let them relax in the posture of prayer and worship.
Lower the latch for good on the way it’s always been done
to find a new unfamiliar way forward.
It would not be easy,
it’d be quite painful.
Maybe that’s why Jesus said we’d have to lose our lives to find them.
Our Quaker Friends have wisdom to lend about doors closing.
When Quakers talk about life decisions and direction they have a phrase:
“Way will open” they will say.
One of my favorite Quaker authors Parker Palmer
describes such in a conversation between a frustrated young man and an elder named Ruth.
The young guy, frustrated by that phrase says:
‘Well, I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I’ve been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m meant to do. Way may open for other people, but it’s sure not opening for me.’
Ruth replied: ‘in sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me.’ She paused, and the guy started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling him that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: ‘But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.’
I still prefer to see this scripture through the eyes of Samuel.
I still prefer the uplifting chords of ole hymn 525.
I want myself and our Church and our country to be the ones capable of speaking ear-tingling truth that opens way before us.
But if I understand the text, our first work is to consider what way must close behind us.
To name and claim our own part in it and,
to the extent that we are able, without excuse or blame, to let it be. To let it go.
So, here I am, Lord, here we are,
give us such courage. Alleluia. Amen.