The Courageous Work of Listening and Speaking

A Sermon for the Season After the Epiphany

On a January morning 18 years ago this very weekend, I preached my first sermon in an Episcopal Church.  It was at St. Francis in Holden, and Melissa and I had been working as the youth leaders there for a few years.  If you know a thing or two about the lectionary, you’ll be able to figure out that the readings we heard this morning had also been read on that day.  And on that morning I was telling the congregation for the first time that I had entered into the discernment process to see whether or not I was called to become a priest.

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The choir did a delightful little anthem on that day about the call of Samuel which included the rector’s son who was about 9 at the time.  Graham lay on the ground pretending to be asleep as the choir told the story in song.  At the point when the choir sang “Samuel, Samuel,” he dutifully got up acting rather groggy and ran over to the person playing the role of Eli.  The song ended with Graham wonderfully singing in a boy’s soprano voice, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.”

I then stood at the pulpit, reflecting on the gospel with its story of “The Call of Philip and Nathanael,” and began sharing my call story.  How even as a little boy I had felt a tug into ministry that never fully materialized. I explained that when Melissa and I couldn’t find a church to worship in after our wedding having settled in Central Mass, the pastor on the North Shore who married us suggested that we try to local Episcopal Church.  “Can anything good come out of the Episcopal Church?” I asked, which drew much laughter that morning at St. Francis.  And then in the closing I told them that I had begun the discernment process, and I invited them to reflect on the ways God had called them too, even if they weren’t meant to have an ordained vocation.

A sermon based on 1 Samuel 3:1-20.

I couldn’t tell you whether we read the entire lesson from 1 Samuel that morning—if we left out the parts in the brackets, verses 11-20—but knowing my good friend Rich who had been the rector at the time, I suspect we did.  However, I do know that the content of those verses didn’t make it into the song or my sermon.  The good feeling of the day didn’t need to be tamped down by the word of the Lord that came to young Samuel, and I can’t imagine any composer trying to fit in these words from the Almighty: “I am about to punish Eli’s house forever for their iniquity, because his sons were blaspheming God.”  Sometimes it’s easier to pretend that we’re asleep when the word of the Lord comes, or just ignore those words entirely.  Since the lectionary committee in their seemingly great wisdom years ago gave us the option to skip the last 10 verses, we could do that and end up with, as Professor Richard Boyce puts it, “a nice little story of an individual’s call.”  But, he continues, “keep them in and you have a powerful story regarding the courage required to listen and to speak.”

At the service for my ordination to the priesthood—an event that happened 13 years ago next week—Rich delivered a powerful sermon reminding me to preach the gospel faithfully and with courage.  On that Sunday afternoon the reading focused on the call of Isaiah when he said to the Lord, “Here am I, send me!”  Rich told the congregation and me, “But Isaiah’s skill and his commitment to God could not compensate for the hardness of heart and the deafness of the people of his day, as we discover if only we read just a few verses beyond where we stopped this afternoon. We didn’t hear that part because the lectionary committee (in their infinite wisdom) only gave us the nice part (as they are wont to do.) But I would urge you as a preacher not to get caught in the trap of reading lectionary pericopes. Keep reading the Bible…and pay extra attention to the verses that tend to get omitted as well as the books of the Bible that tend to get shortchanged.”

So let’s look at the hard stuff together with courage.  Eli’s sons “were scoundrels.” Those aren’t my words, those are the words of scripture.  They had been using their power and status as priests to take advantage of others and satisfy their own desires.  They would demand the choicest morsels of meat brought by worshippers for their sacrifices even before the meat had been placed on the altar, and they would lie with  “vulnerable women” who had come to the tent of meeting to worship the Lord.  Eli heard about his sons’ vile actions and did nothing to stop it.  This made God angry.

So God comes to Samuel in the night, this one who was destined to become a great prophet, but he had never heard the word of the Lord. It takes the knowledge of old Eli to recognize that God was audibly calling out to the young boy.  “The next time it happens,” he says to young Sammy, “respond, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” And so Samuel does. The Lord declares to him, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”  God then tells him that Eli and his sons will be punished because Eli knew awful things were taking place and he didn’t speak up or try to stop it.

Because, my friends, God has an affinity with the poor and the vulnerable.  With the ones seeking to be faithful in their devotion to God and the ones who have been pushed down and oppressed.  So when Eli’s sons trampled on them and Eli—the one who has been and will continue to be the spiritual father and teacher of Samuel—does absolutely nothing about it, the Lord responds.

In the Biblical Narrative, God chooses again and again the powerless and the weak.  God chooses children like Samuel to speak, and God also chose a donkey.  The Lord empowers the stutterer Moses to lead God’s people from bondage, and God selects the second or fourth or eleventh child to be the heir rather than the oldest.  We heard this morning that even Nazareth—Jesus’ adopted hometown—was seen as significantly lacking even to other Jewish folks of the time.  God chooses the weak, the downcast, the tired, the poor to become ambassadors for the peaceable kingdom.  That kingdom of God where the lamb will lie down with the lion, and the child will play over a den of snakes, when animosity and hate and hurtful actions will no longer see the light of day, but grace and peace and goodwill will reign supreme.

And so we too have become the children of God and are called to be ambassadors of that kingdom.  But that task is not always easy.  It means at times that we must speak up against those who abuse their power.  We must not stand idly by or turn a blind eye when we notice wrongdoing.  We cannot ignore statements casting blame on the vulnerable for circumstances beyond their control.  We must work for the truth that all people are indeed created equal and are beloved of God, and we must see the face of Christ in every person we meet.

When we confront, however, we cannot take on the belief that we have the higher moral ground.  We cannot pile on those committing disgraceful acts with hate-filled words, or else we too become those committing disgraceful acts.  Rather we must stand with conviction and speak with courage in naming the evil we see and implore them to reject the notion held by the pigs in Animal Farm that some are created more equal than others.  We must also invite them to see the love God has for us all and to lift up those who have been cast down or not given a fair shake in life.  It doesn’t matter how people came to be in that hard place—whether through the chances and changes of this life, in the circumstances or places of their birth, or through the undertow of the corruption of others—we as children of the Living God are called to to show them life and love and to raise them up.

We must work to bring about change in our neighborhoods, our nation, and our world whenever we see or encounter abuse, the denigration of others, and the belief that the powerful are better the weak.  We must stand firm in our conviction that the love of God is both for all people and stronger than all things. Friends, that is the message of the gospel.  That is our call as children and servants of God.  To act with courage, and hope, and the strength of our convictions and help usher in that kingdom.  May we do so with fervor, boldness and humility all our days.   And may that kingdom come soon. Amen.