1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
All Things New: Samuel
You might remember me mentioning during Advent that Mary's song in the gospel of Luke, the Magnificat, is extremely similar to Hannah's song in the Old Testament, when she gives thanks to God for the life of her child, after years where she was not able to give birth. Hannah is so thankful, and had prayed so fervently for a child that she promised God she would dedicate that child to God's service – and so she did. She gave Samuel to service in the temple, and that is just where we find him today – in the temple, serving under the guidance of the priest Eli. Our passage opens with the narrator noting that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” This kind of comment is not unusual in the Old Testament. When we read about leaders and judges and kings, we often hear a quick description of whether they followed God or did what was evil in God's sight. So, here we read that when Samuel was a boy, people seemed to be far from God, not attending to God's words or experiencing visions of what God had planned.
Eli is laying down at night, and Samuel was resting in the presence of the ark, which carried the law of God. God calls Samuel: “Samuel, Samuel.” He think the voice is Eli, so he runs to him and says, “Here I am!” Eli says he did not call the boy, so he goes back to bed. This exchange repeats two more times, and Eli realizes God is calling the child. Eli directs Samuel to answer God next time Samuel is called. So God calls again, and Samuel responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” So begins Samuel’s life as a prophet to
an eventual mentor to the first Kings of , Saul and David. Israel
But the weird twist to this story is in what God first says to Samuel. What God first tells Samuel is that Samuel has to tell Eli about the end of his household. You see, Eli's two sons, also serving in the temple, were corrupt and abusing their positions. Eli had already been told by God that his own family line would not continue. And yet, Eli still has this role to play, acting as an interpreter of sorts to Samuel, helping him understand who is calling, and how to respond to God. When Samuel finally tells Eli what God revealed to Samuel, Eli says: It is the Lord; let [God] do what seems good to God. Even though Eli faces pain and suffering, he keeps Samuel on the right path. Eli and Samuel's stories are bound together, and Eli plays a critical role in Samuel becoming who God is calling him to be.
As you have heard me mention a few times now, this Friday is our ecumenical dinner, an opportunity to be together with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the community. The timing of the meal is not accidental – we celebrate now because from the 18th to the 25th, we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, actually in its 100th Anniversary this year. The emphasis on Christian Unity is meant to remind us that our common life in Christ, our identification as members of the body of Christ, is much more important than the things that separate or differentiate us. And this isn’t meant to be some fluffy notion – it isn’t just about holding hands and being together and ignoring differences for a week of the year. No, it is about recognizing that we have a common purpose, meaning, and calling – we are in it together, and we are meant to help each other work life out together.
It is also no accident that the Week of Prayer falls so close to Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King wrote frequently about his disappointment with white churches during the Civil Rights Movement. White church leaders kept urging him to take things slowly and not push for so much radical change, even if they thought it was right. King couldn’t understand how those who were united with him in Christ could fail to act for the cause of truth and justice. In 1965, King gave the commencement address at Oberlin College, a speech called, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution." King spoke about his travels in India where he went to learn about nonviolent resistance to oppression. Reflecting on the extreme hunger and poverty he witnessed there he wrote, “As I noticed these conditions, something within me cried out, "Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?" And an answer came, "Oh no! because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation." I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day in our country to store surplus food, and I said to myself, "I know where we can store food free of charge - in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God's children in Asia and Africa, in South America, and in our own nation who go to bed hungry at night."
All I'm saying is simply this: that all [humankind] is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be - this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: No [one] is an Island, entire of itself; every [one] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main... And then [Donne] goes on toward the end to say: any [one]'s death diminishes me, because I am involved in [humankind]; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.
“For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” To me, that is what Christian unity is about, indeed, what our human journey together is about – I can’t be what I should be unless I am involved in your being what you ought to be. That means if you are suffering, it doesn’t just matter to me, it impacts me. If you are sick, it impacts me. If you are doing what is wrong, it impacts me. If you are full of joy, it impacts me. Within this congregation, we can only fulfill our purpose in God as far as we are also part of making sure each person here is finding their purpose. We can only be what we are meant to be if we are involved in wholeness and justice for all people because injustice for some means our life is not as full as God means it to be.
“For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” Last week, I shared with you from one of my texts for the DMin class I completed this last week, where the author said that we are too often trying to define ourselves externally – I shop, therefore I am – remember? Another of our texts, a collection of writings by South African Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, speaks about the African concept of ubuntu, essentially – “I am because we are.” Or “a person is a person through other people.” I am because we are. Tutu says this is “how my humanity is caught up and bound up inextricably with yours (21-22).” For Jesus, this meant love of neighbor was always tied to love of self and to love of God. You have heard me say this before: my least favorite phrase is “that’s between me and God.” No! What is between us and God is our neighbor. We cannot truly grow closer to God unless we grow closer to one another. Because I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. As long as we are convinced that we can be complete and be holy and connected with God while leaving others behind for any reason, we will never be what we can be, who we ought to be, who we are called to be.
As you think of people of faith who inspire you, who have shaped the world, I think you will find people whose lives were formed by the helping hands of others, and who, in turn, focused their life work on serving others. We love God by loving one another. I am because we are. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. So, as we celebrate the work of Dr. King, and as we celebrate our Christian unity, let us commit to following God together. Speak to us God, for your servants are listening. Amen.