October 24, 2021
You can listen to a preached version of this sermon on Podbean.
Remember last week when Samuel was just a boy serving at Shiloh under the mentorship of Eli? When “the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to” Samuel and then God came to him in the night? When Eli finally said, “no, it’s not me calling to you, it’s God. Go listen.” And that thrill when the voice of God came to him and Samuel said, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”? It was all so new and wonderful and exciting!
The idea of God coming to speak to us is lovely. And many of the times I have experienced God’s presence have, in fact, been very comforting and uplifting. Warm and fuzzy and nice. Every single time my granddaughter, Camilla, reaches her arms out for me to hold her. Last Tuesday night, gazing at the stunning sky with the almost-full moon casting silver and purple and blue outlines around dappled clouds. I’m sure you have these experiences as well. Times when it feels simple and perfectly safe to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Yes, the idea of God coming to speak to us is lovely.
As Samuel quickly found out, though, the reality of God coming to speak to us is . . . more complicated. It was all great when Samuel thought God was just popping in for an evening chat, but when God actually spoke . . . that was not so great. Because the words that God spoke were hard. And thus began Samuel’s life as a prophet.
We are fast forwarding this week. Eli has died. Samuel has anointed Saul as king. Saul has screwed up as king. A few chapters back, Samuel describes himself as “old and gray” (13:2). He is way past the stage of being new to hearing God’s voice. He is, it seems, way past the stage of “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
You may notice that the dialog between God and Samuel in today’s passage goes a little differently than it did last week. God comes to Samuel and says, “fill your horn with oil and go out.” And Samuel doesn’t grab his horn off the shelf and dump the oil in it. Samuel says, “Oh, no, I can’t do that. If I do that Saul’s gonna kill me.” Samuel is not so impressed with hearing the voice of God these days. He’s a little more wary. A little less eager. His relationship with God has become a little more complicated.
It’s no wonder Samuel is reluctant to obey God’s voice. Did you hear what God asks Samuel to do in today’s reading? God tells Samuel to conduct a fake worship service as a pretext for a political coup. Pretend you’re in Bethlehem to hold a sacrifice, says God. Then while you’re having this pretend sacrifice, that’s your opportunity to anoint a new king.
This seems . . . a little shady. Pretty terrible, actually. Not to mention blasphemous—to fake a worship service for a political agenda.
I brought up to a friend, Carol Rose, how awful this seemed. Carol has worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams all over the world. And she said, “Oh, that is what you do. When there are oppressive regimes it is very costly to bring people together and say that it’s a political event. You can’t do that. You always have a pretext. You always have a non-political reason that people are gathering so that if the authorities show up they hopefully won’t just kill everyone who is there. That’s how it works,” she told me.
So this fake worship service God tells Samuel to hold? Maybe it is shady and terrible; and maybe it’s even blasphemous; and maybe it is also necessary. . . . It’s complicated.
And what about the actual anointing of a new king? Did I mention that Israel already has a king? His name is Saul. Awhile back the people demanded a king and Saul is who God told Samuel to anoint. And for many years Samuel has been a close advisor for Saul. And now Saul–for reasons that are not completely clear and seem a little odd—has fallen out of favor with God. At the very beginning of today’s reading, God asks Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul?”. Samuel is invested in Saul’s kingship and in his own personal relationship with Saul. And this thing God tells Samuel to do? It’s a direct threat to that kingship and that relationship.
And, what about anointing David as the new king? There’s definitely some resentment stirred up within the family system when the baby brother, who didn’t even seem important enough to invite to this event, ends up being the chosen one. When he finally takes the throne, David is all kinds of problematic . . . which we don’t have time to get into right now.
And of course having an acting king and a different anointed king causes tension and problems in Israel. There are secrets and factions and attempted murders. It’s pretty dramatic.
And, it’s complicated.
Often, we are told that obeying the voice of God, following the way of Jesus, is simple and clear-cut. Just love people. And don’t do bad things (defined differently in different contexts, of course). Maybe, if you’re really into the whole God/Jesus thing, you give up some money, some time, some comfort to do good things for other people.
And yes. Yes to loving people and not doing bad things and yes to doing good things. And also . . . it’s complicated.
I’m thinking of a situation I’m in the middle of right now where I don’t know quite what to do. Where what seems that acting loving toward one person would feel hurtful to another person. Where I can’t tell what is the good thing and what is the bad thing and what it is God is calling me to. I’m trying to figure it out, and the reality is that even if the voice of God comes to me in the night and tells me exactly what to do, it’s still going to be an awful situation and people will be hurt and relationships will be damaged. Because it’s complicated.
I’m thinking of the Mennonite Church USA resolution I helped write and we, as a church, signed on to, that calls on our broader church to repent of the harm we’ve caused lgbtqia people and move toward healing and justice. There are people who feel hurt by this resolution. It has been called “unpastoral.” Some people think that having a delegate vote on this resolution will cause damage to the denomination. If you define “damage” as creating an environment where lots of people are uncomfortable and some churches choose to leave, then they are probably right. And yet I feel the leading of God really strongly in my work with Inclusive Mennonite Pastors and this resolution. For every person in power who is uncomfortable and upset, there are people the church has wounded deeply who long to receive this word of grace—and justice—from their church. Doing what I believe is the right and Godly thing is not the same as doing the nice and warm and fuzzy thing. It’s complicated.
I’m thinking about fighting a jail expansion that many believed would help incarcerated people. I’m thinking about the discussion I was part of this past week with the Sherriff talking about his ideas for renovations at the jail. And I’m sure you are thinking about a lot of things as well. Situations where “love people” and “don’t do bad things” are not adequate guidelines for finding the good and right path. Situations where doing what you believe God calls you to does not feel warm and fuzzy, and might even lead to upsetting some people, maybe even upsetting people you care about. Because it’s complicated.
Samuel’s situation was complicated. And it’s no wonder he wasn’t too eager to fill his horn with oil and head out. It’s no wonder his initial response to God was, “How can I do that?”.
Samuel doesn’t provide—and I don’t have–a secret key to uncomplicate things and provide guidance for the difficult situations in your life—or mine. Love people, yes. But sometimes it’s hard to know what love really looks like. Don’t do bad things, of course. But sometimes people will tell you something is bad when it’s really the good thing God wants you to do.
But one thing I think this old and gray version of the prophet Samuel does teach us is that it’s OK to be hesitant about the things God may be calling us to do. It’s OK to ask questions and think about the consequences. In the end, though, Samuel does “fill [his] horn with oil and set out.”
And I find this a striking image. I’ve been thinking about what it would mean for me, for us, to set out with a horn full of oil—metaphorically speaking, of course.
For one thing, it would mean that we expect God to ask something of us, even if we don’t yet know what it is. And we know that whatever God asks of us might very well be complicated.
Setting out with a horn full of oil would mean that we are prepared to bless and empower the people we meet in the name of God.
It would mean that we are willing to venture outside of comfortable spaces, and even willing to break established rules.
It would mean that we are willing to risk upsetting the powers for the sake of participating in God’s work in the world.
When we fill our horns with oil and set out, we acknowledge how complicated a life of faith can be. We commit to try to follow the way of Jesus anyway.
And we should always remember that the oil we carry is not just for other people, but can be used for ourselves as well. Because when things get complicated, as they do, there’s a good chance—probably a statistical certainty—that we will get it wrong at least once. And when we do, the oil is there for us, for our own anointing and forgiveness. As a reminder that God will, as the psalmist writes, create in us a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit within us. Again and again. Thanks be to God.