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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God Calls Us To Speak Truth - 01/14/2018

The story of Samuel may be understood to begin 500 years earlier in the wilderness with Moses where empty-belly-fears caused the Israelites to cry out to God: “Why didn't you just leave us in Egypt to die?!” They were a people learning how to live in their new-found freedom from the Egyptian masters. More importantly, they were learning how to hold a radical trust in this God who not only heard their cries and prayers of lament, but answered them with the water, meat and bread they needed to sustain them on the way to the Land of Milk and Honey.

After that first generation of wilderness wanderers died out, the people did finally reach the Promised Land. And as they entered the land, they also entered into a time when people would be chosen to lead, and mostly fail, this new nation. Through the missteps of these early leaders, Israel found itself lost in days of bloodshed, idolatry and civil wars. By the end of the book of Judges we read “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes,” (Judges 21.25) which is Bible code for “things were pretty messed up … the people had forgotten the covenant … again.” In the story of Samuel we have today, we are told that visions from God were not widespread … but perhaps it wasn't that God was not trying, maybe people were just too caught up in doing what was right in their own eyes to notice.

But with the story of Samuel, it's like we get a fresh start – a blank slate that starts with the story of a faithful woman named Hannah who prayed God would give her a son after years of not being able to concieve. And her prayers are answered. “For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.”  (1 Sam 1.27-28) Once Samuel is weaned, she delivers him to Eli, the high priest at Shiloh, for his upbringing, education, care and daily work in the temple.

Now, Eli is a man dealing with his own problems, not the least of which are his rebellious and wicked sons – the priests who are supposed to follow in Eli's footsteps as caretakers of the temple and caretakers of the spiritual needs of the people, including the offerings they are required to make to God. “Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels;” the text tells us. “They had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” (1Sam 2.12)

Their names were Hophni and Phinehas and they abused their priestly positions of power to fill their bellies and satisfy their desires. They would take the choicest parts of the people's sacrifices to God for themselves and they behaved inappropriately with the people who helped to care for the temple. They used their God-given power solely to benefit themselves and get what they wanted without regard for anyone else, including God.

Eli had been a good and God-fearing priest, but  he knew his sons were behaving in these ways, he even called them out at one point, but overall, he really did nothing to restrain them and God noticed.

God even used another person to speak to Eli and told him the days of his house – this priestly lineage he had inherited – were numbered. Through this messenger, God reminded Eli that his people had been brought up out of Egypt and protected and fed in the wilderness, that God had called Eli's family line to sacred priestly duties. 

“Why then look with greedy eyes at at my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded, and honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choices parts of every offering of my people Israel?” (1 Sam 2.29), the messenger asked Eli. And Eli knew he was convicted.

Into this complex and gloomy environment of idolatry, greed, abuses of power and blasphemy came the innocent Samuel, who very early in life finds himself uttering the familiar response of the prophet, “Here I am.”

So Eli lived his numbered days at the temple, his sight going gradually dim as Samuel grew.  And despite the sinfulness that increasingly darkened the lives of Eli and his sons, the story leads us to feel that the relationship between Eli and Samuel and Samuel's family was good. Each year Hannah and the family would return to make their sacrifice to God. Hannah would also bring a new priestly cloak for Samuel. And each year, Eli would bless them and ask the Lord to favor them by giving them more children. “And the Lord took note of Hannah; she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord,” (1 Sam 2:21) the story tells us.

I think we can draw from this that Eli cared well for Samuel – making sure he had enough to eat, teaching him about God's word and the history of their people. He would have made sure Samuel had proper care when he became sick or comfort him when he was frightened. In our reading for today, it is Eli who Samuel turns to when he is awakened by a voice he hadn't heard before. So I think we can assume that Samuel viewed Eli as a trusted figure, a leader and teacher, a protector, a role model.

Given that, imagine how difficult and challenging Samuel must have found it to hear what God had to say when he finally responded: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

“I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” (1 Sam 3:10, 12-13)

The story tells us that Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what the Lord said. But if we dwell there for a minute, I think we can begin to feel the complexity of what Samuel must be feeling here. These are hard words of truth God is beginning to speak through Samuel and they are particularly hard for Eli who Samuel had come to trust and respect and care about over the years.

And I think it might have been just as hard to speak this Word of God if Samuel hadn't respected and trusted Eli too. Samuel is student; Eli is teacher. Samuel is a dependent; Eli is head of household. Samuel is a child; Eli is an adult. Samuel comes from common people and has no earthly power by birth rite; Eli is from the long line of a priestly family and came into this world in a position of power. So no matter how Samuel felt about Eli, this was not going to be easy. It is not what Samuel would probably choose if he was running this show.

God sometimes calls us to speak truth to power. And my friends, I believe we are in a similar situation today. We are all Samuels being called through our identities as children of God and followers of Jesus to speak truth to power.

Now you may be getting an inkling of where I'm heading here and so I would like to clarify something before I carry this analogy any further.

First, I don't go here lightly. If I had my way, I would stay as far away from topics of political divisiveness as I possibly could. But this isn't about my way.

I have heard and considered the opinion that politics do not belong in the pulpit, and I think we have to clarify what we mean by that – partisan politics do not belong in the pulpit – ever. I refuse to get up here and tell anyone who to vote for or to judge anyone for who they have voted for.

But that is a far cry from holding our Gospel truth up as a lens when we are making our political decisions or observing the actions and hearing the words of our political leaders.

Politics in general – the work and intentions of those who govern God's world – is part of who we are and our lives. It's right in our Creed, this speaking truth to power: “...for our sake (Jesus) was crucified under Pontius Pilate (a political leader) he suffered death and was buried. “ Politics and political leaders are part of why we are here in a Christian community at all.

So I think it's important to come at this from that angle. This isn't about politics in terms of who you voted for or what you think about the policies or even the competence of our current administration. This is about what God calls us to, how God stirs us to step up and speak out against anything that flies in the face of the truth we say we hold to in our Christ-centered lives … that every body of God's creation is “is a temple of the Holy Spirit within … which (we) have from God,” (1 Corin. 6.19), as we hear from Paul today.

Like Samuel we are called to this sometimes difficult task of being the bodies, the messengers that God speaks through when we hear the POTUS make vile and racist comments against any of God's beloved people and against any of God's beloved creation.

Like Samuel, we are called to stand up and demand that our senators and representative, our governors and community leaders call this behavior what it is and renounce it, rather than pull an Eli, who regardless of good or bad intentions, turned a blind and apathetic eye to the vile and sinful actions of his sons.

Here is what one of our religious leaders had to say. This is from the desk of ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton this week:

“...we should be fostering a world where each of us sees every person – regardless of race, origin, ethnicity, gender or economic status – in the image of God and, therefore, worthy of dignity and respect. Our church has relationships and partnerships with Christians and others on six continents. These are our sisters and brothers. We strive to accompany them and they us, across boundaries and cognizant of our diversity, yet all seeking the common good. In working for a healed, reconciled and just world, we all should faithfully strive to participate in God's reconciling work, which prioritizes disenfranchised, vulnerable and displaced people in our communities and the world, bearing witness – each of us – to the love of God in Jesus Christ.” She ended with a MLK quote:

"We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization."  

Like Samuel, I think many of us may feel afraid right now. I know I do at many times. I fear for what will happen if this evil, racist rhetoric is allowed to continue unchecked, and I fear what will happen to those of us who speak out against it.

And that is where, like Samuel also, and those Israelites coming out of Egypt, we remember and continue to keep this radical trust in God, who has freed us in Jesus' death and resurrection to act fearlessly. We remember that today, when we come together in our Sabbath time and and get our fresh start, forgiven by God for the times we choose Eli's way. And we remember as we are nourished at the Lords' Table to go back into that world with the courage and trust of Samuel – to claim every single corner of God's creation, every single body of God's creation as that holy temple Paul writes about.

And so, I'll end with a prayer today – a prayer for the Samuel inside each of us.

Let us pray – God of all ages and places and bodies, you have long led your people through times of wilderness and extreme; you have long called us to speak Your Truth to earthly power that has dismissed and disparaged the most vulnerable of our communities. This is hard and frightening work for us, God. So stay with us. Be our words that we may speak Your Truth and compassion; that we may speak your law and your forgiveness; that we may emulate the one you sent to finally and fully free us from sin, the one who frees us to your service. Speak, for your servants are listening. We pray this in the name of the one who gave it all, Jesus Christ, Redeemer of the Whole World. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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