Plentiful Words, Rare Truth

A Sermon for Proper 4; 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20), Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

Just a week or so ago the NFL owners meeting ended. They adopted several rule changes. One involves kickoffs, during which 40% of concussions occur. Another is that it is now a penalty for a player to lead with their helmet when tackling. These are designed to improve the safety for players. Another change involves rule about players not standing during National Anthem. You may remember the controversy this has caused the last year or so. It is interesting how the actions of a few define all the players. We rarely hear about other kinds of actions by NFL players in regular news. On Facebook, I recently read of two. In one a player helped a lady who was having difficulty paying the $50 fee for her oversized bag. He stepped forward and paid it for her. She offered to repay him with the cash she had, he simply replied, “Use it to pay it forward for someone else.” Another player noticed an elderly woman having trouble getting her bag from the overhead compartment. He got it down for her and carried to the front of the plane. The flight attendant told her the wheelchair and escort would be waiting for her, to take her to lobby. They got to the terminal, there was the wheelchair, but no attendant. So, he pushed her in the wheelchair, to the lobby where her daughter met her. Both these stories were posted by others who saw the behavior. It is a combination of stories, some controversial, some in service to others, and other things as well, that paints the truer image of NFL players.

This morning’s reading from 1 Samuel is the same. The appointed verses are the story of Samuel hearing God’s call and with Eli’s help, answering “Speak Lord, for your servant is here.” It sounds like a prophetic call story, but it does not have the typical structure of a prophetic call. (Birch). However, the optional verses and the story in Chapter 2 (2:11-17 and 22 – 34) tell the rest of the story. Eli’s sons are moral and spiritual hooligans. (Bratt). They grossly abuse their priestly office for their self-interest. It is no surprise then that all Israel does as they see fit (Bratt). The prophecy, by a stranger, in chapter 2 is against Eli and his priestly lineage. The word God tells Samuel to tell Eli repeats that prophecy. These verses reveal the complete story of what is happening here (Birch).

This story is more than Samuel coming of age and taking his first step in service to God. This is a story of a time when the Word of God was rare, and visions were uncommon (Birch). It is significant that Samuel has no basis on which to recognize the Lord’s summons (Birch). His failure to recognize God’s call mirrors the Israelites’ continually ignoring God’s voice (Bratt).

I do not believe God’s word or divine visions are rare these days. Quite the opposite. Doug Bratt puts it this way It’s increasingly hard to actually hear God speaking. It’s hard to untangle so much of the noise that our culture makes from God’s Word of Life. So many people claim to speak for God that we need some kind of good theological filter. The cacophony, the noise of so many competing voices is a sign that there is more at stake in our public, political, religious, and civic institutional decision making, that what the arguments are about. What is at stake is

  • who we are,
  • how we talk to one another,
  • what we model to the world, and
  • how we respect our foundational institutions and values (Friedman).

In describing the fall of one more respected public figure, connected to handling an exploitive sexual relationship, Ross Douthat writes

the big story … is a high-stakes showdown between two generations. Both generations are theologically conservative, but the figures raising their voices … have been —associated with a vision of their church that’s more countercultural, less wedded to the institutional [alliances], more likely to see racial reconciliation as essential …

[T]he temptation to dismiss discomfiting revelations as fake news, to retreat back into ignorance and self-justification, is at least as powerful as the impulse to really reckon with the truth.

[T]he question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge? (Douthart).

It may well be, that as in Samuel’s day, like Israel, many in our world simply do as they seem fit (Bratt).

I do not think it matters if you use an Ignatian concept of the Spiritual Examen (Ashley). or Lectio Divina, or African Bible Study, or some other form of discipline to discern God’s calling or vision. I do believe an indicator of whose voice you are hearing is how it leads you to lead others to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The story of Samuel coming to know the Lord is a stark reminder that there are no guarantees that our call will be easy. Every time has its own peculiarities and God-filled silences and cacophonies. Each of us is called to be a prophet, in our own way. That call includes continually listening for the Voice, and then to speak what we hear (Bridgeman). To faithfully hear and speak takes a willingness to get out of the way, to hear without editing, to act, and then take responsibility for our response to what we have heard (Epperly). To be a prophet involves an openness to the advice and wisdom of others who might help us in discerning God’s call. (Birch). But whether we are prophetic or not our words, our actions, or lack of words or action, plays a part in others coming to recognize the voice of the Lord and divine visions.

None of this is easy. And as strange as it may seem, it is Eli who models this kind of self-awareness, and openness to God’s word. The judgment against him and his sons is harsh. It can never be expiated, can never be atoned for, never be corrected by sacrifice, or offering (1 Samuel 3:14. And though Eli is neither corrupt nor unfaithful, he accepts divine judgement, rather than seeking self-interest, when he says, “It is the Lord.”

It is hard to accept and harder to speak truths that challenge what we like and what benefits us. I think this is the source of all the turmoil in response to black ballplayers kneeling rather than standing as the National Anthem is sung. I expect we try to define the prophetic role as predicting the future and not speaking hard truths, because speaking the hard truth is lots harder, and personally costly. Today’s Psalm is clear

It is a fearful thing and a loving thing to know that God has searched me and known me, sits with me, rises with me, sees my path, and knows all my ways, is behind me and before me, lays a hand upon me (The Living Church).

The psalmist provides us a powerful, source of strength and hope wherever we go, we are in God’s care: no emotional, spiritual, or geographical state can take us beyond God’s presence (Epperly).

 A final observation. In all the prophets’ words about harsh truth and oncoming disaster, there is always a word of hope and a path to God’s presence. The same is true here. The reading ends

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:19-20).

You know I am fond of saying “The Kingdom of God is right here right now.” I know this is especially true as we accept our prophetic voice and name the evils where we are, such that all God’s people may know and show justice, mercy, and humility, to each other and before God.


References

Ashley, Danáe. “Bread, Law, and Spirit, Pentecost 2 (B).” 3 6 2018. Sermons that Work.

Birch, Bruce C. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Frist and Second Books of Samuel. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. X vols. OliveTree App.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 4B 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20). 3 6 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/&gt;.

Bridgeman, Valerie. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20].” 3 6 2018. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?&gt;.

Douthart, Ross. “The Baptist Apocalypse.” 30 5 2018. nytimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/opinion/paige-patterson-southern-baptist-convention.html&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 6 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Sounding Code Red: Electing.” 29 5 2018. New York Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/opinion/midterms-trump-democrats.html&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Nelson, Thomas. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Church. Righteousness and Mercy. 3 6 2018. <livingchurch.org>.