The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s114o06 Lockleys Epiphany 2 15/1/2006
"Speak, for your servant is listening" 1 Samuel 3.10
I suppose that it would be a matter of some debate which passages of scripture are most well known. The Lord's Prayer must be the most well known. Probably then comes John 3.16: "For God so loved the world .." though often misinterpreted as Jesus being the bouncer at the pearly gates of heaven. When I first pondered this question I thought of Psalm 23 -- to Crimond, Wiltshire, St James Air and then the signature tune to the TV series "the Vicar of Dibley". But perhaps in times past, when attendance at Evensong on a Sunday evening was more usual, the Magnificat: "My soul doth magnify the LORD" would also be very familiar. It has some modern incarnations: "Tell out my soul" being a popular modern hymn.
The Song of Mary -- the Magnificat -- is one of the longest pieces of dialog ascribed to anyone in the gospels, and it is certainly significant that it is ascribed to a woman.
But then I thought, well Psalm 23 is of course from the Old Testament, so its use has spanned more centuries. But in fact the Song of Mary has its own precursor in the Old Testament as well, in the Song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who figures in our Old Testament lesson for today. The Song of Mary is most certainly derived from the earlier OT song.
Compare the words of Mary: "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1.51-53) -- to the words of Hannah: "Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. .. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour. (1 Sam 2.5-7)
The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, heralds the story of the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. The Song of Hannah similarly heralds another salvation wrought by the prophet Samuel. And interestingly, significantly, profoundly, the two salvations are remarkably similar, if only we were to hear them.
Sadly, I suspect that the story of the call of Samuel is included at this time of the year, liturgically because we are presently thinking about Jesus as a young boy. So we hear of the call of God to the boy, but not the message that he was given to deliver. We focus on the innocent naiveté of the lad and don't even read the profound message of condemnation that he had to deliver. We don't listen to any messages of condemnation -- we avoid reading Matthew chapter 23 -- the denunciation of the religious. We much prefer the words of Jesus to the pagan Roman soldiers who were crucifying him: "Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing". No, the Roman soldiers had no idea. However the religious people who contrived to have Jesus killed knew very well what they were doing -- they are not forgiven.
Samuel, brought up in the Temple of God under the tutelage of Eli the old priest was told by God to denounce the very person who was essentially his foster father, the priest, as well as the priest's two sons, Hophni and Phineas. And the sins of Hophni and Phineas are sins about which we cannot have any doubt, they are described in considerable detail. Without going into those details -- you can read them for yourselves -- Hophni and Phineas treated the offerings of those who came to the Temple as their own -- they spent there time picking and choosing what they would accept. They treated other worshippers with utter contempt. Their father, Eli the priest, was denounced because he knew what his sons were doing, knew it was wrong, but failed to stop his sons.
So right at the beginning of the gospel story, when Mary sings in praise of God, the salvation is about ridding the temple of those who treated the offerings of others as their own, picking and choosing what they would accept and treating others with contempt. The story of the Pharisee and the publican praying in the Temple immediately comes to mind. The Pharisee was scandalized in having to share his space in worship with the publican.
Now in my experience in the Church -- and I do not at all mean here at Lockleys in particular -- but everywhere -- the gospel imperative has been to get lots of people to come to our Church -- but really only to admire our offerings and contribute to the maintaining of these our offerings for as long as possible. The only offerings that are acceptable are those that contribute to our own -- we too pick and choose what we will accept. And I'm not sure that this is all that much different from the outlook of Hophni and Phineas.
And it is not just alterations to the physical structure that I am talking about. What if someone comes with a theology that bids us accept the contributions of those of the female gender who are ordained? Or gay people? Are we scandalized if we are asked to share our space in this our Temple with the likes of them?
So the rich and the powerful that are brought down, are not the likes of Rupert Murdoch and the late Kerry Packer; the rich and powerful are good Christian people, people often in church every Sunday but who look down with contempt on others who don't measure up.
How often do we find in the Church the unspoken assumption that it is always that the tradition has to be observed and the elders have to be deferred to? The story of the call of Samuel tells us that God speaks through the young, condemning the tradition and the elders.
So if we too listen to the Lord, as Samuel does as he says: "Speak, your servant is listening" it will lead us to regard the offerings of others as sacred as our own.
And so, if anyone expects me to remain silent like the father of Hophni and Phineas, when I see the Church really treating others who are different with contempt, then those are not hearing the message that Samuel was called to bring. For not everything in our Church is sweetness and light.
So if you were to ask me how I interpret the words in our epistle about prostitutes and sin and fornication; my impression of what is doing most damage in our community is not the activities of the clients of prostitutes, but the actions of those who treat others with contempt in the name of some god or other, often the very same name we give to our God. It is not insignificant that among the nefarious activities of Hophni and Phineas was sexual exploitation of the temple servant women over whom they supposedly had charge. This is indeed fornication -- it is sexual exploitation -- and done under the cover of religion. And we do not have to think back all that far in our own history, or look outside our own denomination to recall the propensity of members of our Church to dismiss the offerings of women with contempt.
So the question for us today is: "Are we prepared to listen to God even if it is our own doctrines, traditions and authority that are called into question?"
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