s114o03 Epiphany 2 Lockleys 19/1/2003
"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" 1 Sam 3.10
It is my perverse and mischievous mind and (I presume :-) a misreading of the sense of the sentence in 1 Sam 2.22, but it always seemed an odd and obvious place &endash; the entrance to the tent of meeting - for the sons of Eli to lay with the women who served. I have visions of worshippers having to step over couples on their way to Church!
(NRSV: "Eli .. heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.")
The story of the call of Samuel is one of those favourite ones for young people - sadly this might blind us to the important message it has for adults. Eli the priest, was overlooked, and God spoke the message to the young altar server instead.
So the first thing that we do well to take notice of is that much truth comes from the mouths of "babes and sucklings". The unaffected idealism of youth has much to commend it and we as humanity neglect it to our peril. The message of the hippie peace movement of the 60's continues to be neglected. Former president Jimmy Carter still needs to be heard when he says we will not achieve lasting peace by continuing to kill one another's children. And, of course, this is not a criticism of those who went to Vietnam in obedience to the call or those in the armed services now. It is significant that Major General Peter Cosgrove is able to now publicly question the policies which sent our troops to Vietnam; but only he, as a returned veteran, can rightfully comment about that phase of our history.
But the message given to Samuel was not a comfortable one - "Love God and love your neighbour" or "Don't worry &endash; be happy!" The message given to the young boy was the warning that God was about to kill the two sons of Eli. Hophni and Phineas, were their names. Samuel would have much preferred to not have to give this message of doom to the priest about the priest's own sons, a person who had been his foster father and mentor for most of his life. But Eli gave the boy no opportunity to decline.
This does raise the question of how the word of God is delivered. In the Anglican Church one needs to be at least 23 years old to be a deacon and 24 before being ordained a priest. Are we too institutionally writing off the word of the Lord that may be coming to us, simply because God is speaking to people so young that we ignore them?
I think that one of the clues is the fact that Eli immediately recognises the truth of the message from God and accepts it as such. He had tried to restrain his sons, but unsuccessfully. Eli immediately recognised the justice in what the Lord proposed. While I made a joke about the sons' infidelities at the beginning of the sermon, in fact it was clear to one and to all, including their own father, that the sons of Eli were entirely self serving. In fact it was this self-serving attitude to others which was worse than their infidelity with the Temple servants &endash; which, as I read it, is just an aside. The actual complaint the people made against Hophni and Phineas are spelt out in some detail in verses 12-17 of the second chapter of the first book of Samuel: "Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the LORD or for the duties of the priests to the people. When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest's servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, and he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest's servant would come and say to the one who was sacrificing, "Give meat for the priest to roast; for he will not accept boiled meat from you, but only raw." And if the man said to him, "Let them burn the fat first, and then take whatever you wish," he would say, "No, you must give it now; if not, I will take it by force." Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD; for they treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt." And realising this, the import of the words in the Song of Hannah, prefiguring the Song of Mary, become obvious - "he raises up the poor from the dust". The poor were not the cash strapped people, the poor were the religious poor, people prey to the whims of the religious authorities - the people with only widow's mites looked down on by all - except Jesus.
So, in fact, the message the boy is given to deliver comes as no surprise to anyone, least of all to Eli, and when one reads the full text, it is clear that Samuel is speaking for the whole of the community of Israel who were appalled by the blatant contempt that the priest's sons had for the offerings that "ordinary" people brought to the Temple. No one wanted to reprimand Eli for the behaviour of his sons, but the reality was that someone had to do it. Samuel acts as a spokesperson for the whole community - someone whose motives were pure.
Samuel also gives us an example of reluctance. The word of the Lord, when it is directed against someone is delivered in a spirit of humility and reluctance, not in a spirit of superiority, relishing the prospect of what is about to happen.
And the word of the Lord is not arbitrary - it is quite specific. When the poor of the land are treated with contempt and their offerings to God purloined by others, the Lord will act. And it is precisely the same dynamics which lie behind the so-called cleansing of the Temple. It requires no imagination whatsoever to realise that the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice would look down on the poor for whom the profits the dealers could get on the transactions would be minimal.
In fact Eli the priest manages to "put his foot in it" on another occasion. When Hannah prays by herself in the Temple, Eli takes it upon himself to incorrectly accuse her of drunkenness. Perhaps he didn't think much of women and he is certainly quick to unjustly criticise someone he didn't know - someone who was only able to come to the temple once a year, when he more rightly should have been reprimanding those for whom he had a particular responsibility and who were present in the Temple, acting inappropriately, day in and day out. It is salutary that we need to be aware of our own shortcomings before we criticise others.
Probably there is also an element of criticism of the priest rather than the prophet here too. There were divisions in Judaism between the sacrificial system of the Temple and the teaching of the Torah of the synagogue - in a remarkably similar way to the different emphases in Anglicanism. In this strand of the Old Testament the prophets give the clergy a serve! And in some ways there is an element of truth that a priest's job is to accept people and things as they are and bring them to God, whereas the prophet sees the inadequacies of the present and seeks to remedy them. Both these roles are necessary.
I want for a moment to dwell on the role of the prophet. In the past, we might have thought a prophet was someone who sees into the future. Someone who might have said "You will soon meet a tall, dark and handsome stranger, with whom you will fall passionately in love, marry, have two point four children and live happily ever after." I would not worship a god for whom such matters were paramount.
Yes, prophets do see into the future, but if the words of Samuel are any indication, they are words making plain an injustice to others.
Some time ago I found amongst my notes from when I was an assistant curate and somewhat involved in the charismatic movement, the "role description" of a prophet. They were couched in terms of 1 Corinthians 14.3: "Those who prophesy speak to other people for their building up, and encouragement and consolation". While it may be thought that the message the Lord gave Samuel was one of doom for the sons of Eli the priest, the effect was that the offerings of the people of the land were henceforth going to be treated with appropriate respect - for the upbuilding, encouragement and consolation of ordinary people - or to put it another way - to stop the offerings of ordinary people being denigrated and discouraged.
Traditionally we have thought that the Lord should be most concerned with the supposed decline in morals of modern times. God should be concerned about street kids and drug pushers. I think that the message of the young boy Samuel and the actions of Jesus in "cleansing the Temple" show in no uncertain terms that the Lord's vengeance is actually most quickly aroused when people in authority, in the name of God, denigrate or dismiss the offerings of others.
So the thing that really gets up the Lord's nose is people putting others down in the name of God, and it is here that the truth and force of the saying: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" becomes clear.
If we, in the name of God, criticise or demean the offerings that Buddhists, Hindu, Muslim, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Jews or whoever make to God, then we too, just like Hophni and Phineas, are just picking out the best bits of people's offerings that enhance our own ministry. And we can be in no doubt but that it is precisely this - which the Lord will not let continue.
If we, in the name of our god, demean the offerings brought by others in our own congregation, then this is not the God I worship.
I was thinking about how we often look to the Lord to deal with the uncertainties of life. We look to God to deal with the weather for the farmers, to bring peace to the world, to stop this or that tragedy happening, or I think the favourite one is to get someone else to change their behaviour :-) I think that God's hands are tied when it comes to many of these things.
What the Lord can and does do, albeit as unsuccessfully as some of these other things - is make plain - to those who are willing to listen - that God accepts the contributions everyone makes and calls us, in the name of God, to do likewise.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.