January 18, 2015
This morning’s story includes three characters:
Samuel, Eli, and God. One of these characters is the hero. I’ll give you a hint: the entire book of the Bible is named after him. (And the next book of the Bible, too.) . . . Of course Samuel is the hero. The unlikely child singled out by God who becomes a leader of the people and eventually anoints the first King of Israel.
But the more I think about Samuel as the hero, the more I wonder.
I won’t try to argue that Samuel is not the hero of the full narrative. Like I said, two books of the Bible are named after him. But is Samuel really the hero of this part of the story? I’m leaning more and more toward Eli as the hero here—Eli is the one that does the hard work, that makes the bold move, that sets aside personal concerns for the sake of the broader community.
The very first sentence of this story tells us that “the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.” And this sentence tells us right away how things are supposed to work. Samuel is a boy and Eli is a grown-up. Samuel is serving under Eli.
Which means that it is God who is not following protocol here. God has no business coming directly to Samuel. God’s supposed to go through Eli. Eli is a priest at the temple. His entire purpose in life is to mediate the word of God. Eli exists in the world so that God can speak to the people through him. God is supposed to speak to all of the people through Eli; and God is especially supposed to speak through Eli if God wants the attention of a boy serving under Eli.
But that is not how it happens. The Lord calls directly to Samuel, and this is so out of order, so unexpected, that it takes Eli awhile to figure out what is going on. According to our story, it is not until the third time Samuel comes running in to Eli’s room that Eli “perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” Because the Lord is not supposed to be calling the boy. The Lord is supposed to be calling the old, blind priest who has served in the temple for decades.
But finally, Eli figures out what is happening. And this is where I think he is at least a little heroic. He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if the voice calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
Perhaps by calling Eli “heroic” I am simply defining “hero” as someone who takes a better, more mature course of action than I imagine I would take in a similar situation. Because here is how I imagine it might have gone down if I were in Eli’s position. (You know, in my alternate universe where women served as priests in the temple.)
The fifth or sixth time Sammy came running in saying, “Here I am. You called me”–when I figured out it was actually God calling Samuel—I would have said, “Oh dear. That’s God calling you. God must be terribly confused. Here, let me just put on my robe and I’ll go back to your room with you so I can talk to God and see what’s up.”
Even though Eli, by all rights, is the one God should be talking to, Eli accepts the fact that God is speaking not to him, but to Samuel. And rather than get angry or jealous or bitter, Eli helps Samuel understand that it is the Lord speaking and instructs Samuel about how to best receive the word of God.
Not everyone can do that, you know. Some people are so sure about who God should be talking to and what God should be saying that they can miss the word of God altogether.
Two of the most holy events I have been part of recently—places where I have known the presence of God deeply—have been the Fabulous, Fierce, and Sacred gathering in Chicago a couple of months ago and the wedding I officiated yesterday. In Chicago, there were all kinds of gay and lesbian and transgender and otherwise queer people leading worship and singing and prayer, sharing their spiritual journeys, cracking jokes around the dinner table. And yesterday, two men who have been living in a loving and committed marriage for nine years were finally able to have their relationship legally recognized. I got to sign that marriage license. As did the two grooms’ fathers—one of whom had refused to attend his son’s church wedding nine years ago. These are holy moments, and there are so many people who miss the voice of God because they are so sure God would never be present in a worship service led by queer people; God wouldn’t be caught dead at a gay wedding. So they miss the holy voice.
I heard a story on the Moth Radio Hour recently told by Mark Redmond, who directs an organization called Spectrum that works with homeless and at-risk youth. When he first moved into the community where he now lives, an enthusiastic neighbor invited him to her church—where they had a great contemporary worship service. Another neighbor warned Mark off of that church: “Yeah. We call that the Hollywood church. It’s messed up.” The church had stage lights and loud music and fake snow for the Christmas pageant. And Mark—a good social justice Catholic—avoided it at all costs.
Mark passionately explains that faith is about feeding the hungry and welcoming the outcast; working for justice and caring for the environment. Stage lights and loud music have nothing to do with it.
But wouldn’t you know it, the Hollywood church invited Mark to come talk to one of their children’s Sunday School classes that had collected some supplies for Spectrum. So he reluctantly went and talked to these 9 and 10-year-olds about his organization. He said “thank you” for the box of toothpaste and deodorant and dental floss they gave him. And then one of the teachers said, “We have one more thing” and a girl handed him a black duffel bag. She said, “My brother died—this belonged to him.” Inside the bag were the same sorts of things that were in the box—toothpaste, shampoo . . . and also a Bible with a picture of the girl’s brother, who was not a little boy, but a young man. Curious, Mark leaned over to one of the teachers and asked how the girl’s brother had died. “Heroine overdose.”
That, Mark said, is the moment he recognized: “My own blindness, my own foolishness, my own prejudice. . . . Maybe this church is not the kind of church that I prefer or the kind of worship that I would like, but there are a lot of really good people at this church. And some of them . . . are in tremendous pain. And if this church is where they go to find peace and hope and healing . . . what right do I have to judge that.”
Apparently, God speaks to and through people who go to churches where they use stage lights and fake snow. Who knew?
There’s a prayer I love by Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann that begins: “We are your people and mostly we don’t mind, except that you do not fit any of our categories. We keep pushing . . . trying to make you fit the God we would rather have.”
I love that prayer because, if we are honest, we have to admit that for all of us there is a God we would rather have. We all hold onto the way things should be. The way God should be. Who is and is not worthy to carry the divine message in this world.
It is hard to hear God when the divine voice operates outside the reasonable parameters we have set for it.
That is why Eli is my hero. Eli is the one in this story who sees beyond the shoulds. He is the one who recognizes the voice of God, even when it shows up in an unexpected—an inappropriate–place. Eli is able to accept the word of God, even when that word is not to his personal liking.
We serve a God who does not fit our categories or behave in ways we think a respectable God should behave. And listening for that God, instead of the God we would rather have, is hard. It is maddening. And it is necessary.