Back on January 14 of this year, we had the same text! My comments (click here for them, and images) focused on several things: (a) how hearing God didn’t happen randomly, just anywhere, but in a sanctuary, with daily readings, lightings of candles, prayers, oblations, etc. – so practices of devotion and worship matter if you hope to hear God; (b) how prayer isn’t so much “Hear our prayer, O Lord,” but “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”; and then (c) how the hearing and advent of God’s Word isn’t comfort and light, but drastic change, downright destruction of what is awry – and there I cited Marianne Williamson’s lovely thought that if you ask God into your life, God doesn’t show up to do a little interior decorating or sprucing up, but God arrives like a wrecking ball to tear your world down to its foundations and start over.
In addition to those crucial thoughts on 1 Samuel 3, I want to explore Eli a bit further – partly because it occurs to me you could do a lot with maybe my favorite post-apocalyptic film, The Book of Eli ("the word of the Lord was rare," he's blind, a young child figures prominently, etc.) - but then also because a good friend, Rev. George Ragsdale, spoke on this recently, and I was moved and stirred by what he did. Speaking to clergy about to screen candidates for ordination, he raised the question of how Eli understood (or didn’t!) that Samuel was being called by God.
Eli’s ability to figure out what was going on was compromised – first by his own physical frailty. He’s old, tired, visually impaired. How often do our aches and pains, or our own physical weariness, keep us from hearing God, or from realizing what God might be doing? How often, simply being tired, do we go back to bed and assume it can’t really be God speaking or doing a new thing?
Eli’s mounting blindness isn’t just physical; it’s symbolic of his leadership. He’s blinded by love and attachment to his own sons (as was Samuel, and David) who were scoundrels, who “had no regard for the Lord,” and abused their priestly prerogatives. As I explored in my book, Weak Enough to Lead, all leaders show up for work with whatever they left at home still rattling around in their heads. When you preach or pastor, you carry, probably hidden in silence, a struggle you had with your son, a spat with your spouse, a harsh word from your mother – and it impacts what you do; the people to whom you preach experience the same thing in their worlds. And so we name these Eli situations – the recognition and naming offering some mercy where there isn’t much other mercy to be had. And then, of course, God might use that hidden brokenness – which can become compassion for others…
And finally, doesn’t Eli suspect that if he helps Samuel hear God’s Word, that would prove to be the final blow against him and his own family’s failed leadership? As George put it, might it be that God will even call the church to something we don’t recognize, as much as we love the place, and that we’ll be the ones left behind? Can we help the church hear even that calling that will cost us plenty?
George concluded his sermon by quoting Barbara Brown Taylor to great effect: “Does anyone really want to hear the voice of the living God? I wonder. I wonder, as I said before, which is worse: to hear it or not to hear it, to face fainting at the power of it or to live oblivious to it, eaten up by the thousand little fears that may prevent its ever getting through…. Sometimes I think all my worrying about the bills, my health, my family, my life, death, and the universe—all that is what I worry about to avoid saying, in the middle of the night, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' I am so afraid that I will hear something, or that I won't. But all the evidence points toward hearing something, at least eventually. It is our faith and our hope that, since the beginning of time when God's word created heaven and earth, through the word he gave to Abraham and our forebears forever, through the word made flesh in Jesus, God has been speaking to us and is speaking to us still. But he has never forced us to hear.”
To me, this narrative drives us directly into the non-narrative arms of the epistle. In 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Paul clarifies what we know but don’t put on resumes or admit to pulpit committees: “We have this treasure in clay jars” (or a Victor Paul Furnish translates, “earthen pots”). Many understand these to be vessels used for the offering of sacrifice – so they could then be broken up and disposed of it they became ritually unclean. Like Eli, we are such earthen vessels… and the image of the broken, breakable, sacrificial pottery piece can be probed endlessly. Wasn’t it Leonard Cohen who wrote “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”?
And then we have Lillian Daniel’s moving story from her childhood: her father would go on long trips, and then return with collectible pottery pieces from around the world. As the years passed, she kept noticing, next to the fabulous samples of artful pottery, there was one shabby piece that looked like it had been glued together by an amateur. While the other pieces were labelled with indications of their provenance, this one simply said “Precious.” Lillian asked her mother about it – and learned the story. Her father came home after an especially long trip. Little Lillian saw him pull up in the driveway, bolted out of the house, and ran to her dad – who was holding his pottery treasure but could do nothing but let it fall to the pavement as he embraced and lifted up his little girl. Precious. The broken one.
Paul’s poetic cadence (“afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed”) requires no explanation at all. The preacher can just repeat it, reiterate it, maybe invite the people to stand and declare it out loud with her.
And I’m dumbstruck by Paul’s daunting brilliance in adding “Always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus.” How do we make sense of suffering? You bear it, you pray for God’s healing, etc. – but what if it feels and is interpreted as a carrying within our own bodies the death of Jesus? Oh my. St. Francis of Assisi sought this and an even more intense kind of solidarity with Jesus. Two years before his death, Francis withdrew from the crowds to rocky Mt. LaVerna. It was September, 1224, when the Catholic calendar featured the “feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.” He prayed intently, with words of unmatched theological power:
In my Conversations with St. Francis, I spend some time on this remarkable prayer, talking about the place where it happened and how Francis then experienced the greatest or the worst miracle ever: being wounded in his hands, feet and side. The “stigmata” – as Paul put it, “carrying in the body the death of Jesus.”
I’m so taken with 1 Samuel 3, and then 2 Corinthians 4 that I don’t know if I’ll get to the Gospel, Mark 2:23-3:6 at all. On the Sabbath, I cannot recommend highly enough what may be Walter Brueggemann’s best little book, Sabbath as Resistance. Stunning, profound, devotional, political, liberating, challenging. And Jesus: wasn’t the Sabbath his best day of the week? Not because of his own rest, but because he cut to the heart of the thing, healing, letting the disciples eat, spinning it all not as antinomianism but a robust sense that the Sabbath was made for people… We are totally loose on Sabbath observance, so we actually need the opposite lesson that the Pharisees needed.