Rev. Diane K. Hooge

1 Samuel 3:1-10

It has been about nine years since Hannah placed the hand of her three year old son into the weathered, worn, aging hand of the priest, Eli. This has always been for me one of the most powerful images in scripture.  I can picture Hannah going through a bag of sacred items, while still keeping Samuel firmly lodged on her hip.  Each item has a story and accompanying directions:  the blanket, the well-worn stuffed camel that has been held to Samuel’s face ever since he could reach for it, his jacket, and an assortment of other child paraphernalia.

Samuel is the child of her prayers—prayers that were prayed in the temple when she had cried out to God pleading for a son.  She promised that he would be given back to God.  And, she arrived at the temple gate in Shiloh to fulfill her promise.  She knew from his conception that she would be dropping him off at the Temple, but I suspect that for the first two years it had seemed so far off that she didn’t allow herself to give it much thought.  I imagine that it was only the grace of God that got her home on that long ago day when she released him to Eli.

It is this background story that is the foundation for today’s scripture lesson.  The text starts off with the words, “And the word of God was rare in those days…”  This text is written when Israel is besieged by political weakness, economic struggles and moral chaos.  The Philistines are a powerful threat to Israel’s security, however, inwardly, Israel is her own worst enemy.  The dysfunctional priestly family mirrors the decay of the wider community.  Eli’s dim eyesight is not as critical as the fact that his spiritual sight is dim. (Ellie Wiesel)  Eli long ago seems to have thrown up his hands over the evil actions of his sons, Hophni and Phinehas.  They are best known for abusing their position as priests through greed, gluttony and sexual promiscuity.  Israel has lost her way from Yahweh and is waiting for a king to come to her rescue.

The Divine intervention does not come on a pilgrimage or from a mountaintop experience.  The vision comes to the one who is in training—the one who has had a call upon his life since his conception.  Samuel’s call comes in the midst of great darkness.  God’s light –God’s intervention breaks through as a wake-up call.  It is now time for the student to become the teacher.  It is now time for the apprentice to be coached in order to replace the master.  My take on Eli is that he fell into colluding with his sons, because he didn’t wake up and take a stand.

When pushed by Eli to speak his truth, Samuel blurts out the news that has him shaking in his bathrobe.  His first prophetic assignment would be a test for any veteran, let alone a youth who has grown up with Eli as priest and mentor and for whom he must have felt a strong sense of loyalty if not love.

Yahweh has made the promise:  the priestly house of Eli is to be terminated.  Eli is not so old or so distracted that he cannot recognize the fact that he and this Temple has become a hollow shell.  To his credit, Eli receives the message.  The truth has been spoken.  I suspect that the fact that Eli has played a part in the training of Samuel may have made it easier to bear…perhaps he saw the mistakes he had made with his own sons and sought to guide Samuel differently.

Just as God’s revelation through Samuel meant a radical encounter with the structures of power, we celebrate another prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was also called by God to name the structures that held African Americans hostage.  In the naming…in the marching…in the visions..in the dreams…in the teaching and in the preaching…Dr. King called us to an understanding of God’s revelation as liberation.  His role and his influence paralleled the history of Israel, which portrays what God has done, is doing, and will do in times of oppression.

Lessons that have us delving into shadows are never easy.  It calls for us to take a look at our own shadows.  The birthday of Dr. King, demands that we as a people look at the injustice of our society. It demands that we be reminded of past systems that were tampered with because of a prophetic calling on his life.  There is an expectation that we will again tell the stories that cause us to often become fidgety because racism is never easy to face let alone own.  It demands that we renew our pledge towards the slogging work that is called forth of anyone who seeks to change systems.  It demands a renewed effort to continue the work towards anti-racism.

Catholic Worker and founder, Dorothy Day, often quoted a line of truth from Dostoevsky (dawst toe vesky) “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”  Martin Luther King, Jr., discovered just how harsh and messy and costly dreams could be in practice.

In Samuel’s story, he responds to God by saying, “Here I am.” In Hebrew this form of “hear” more accurately means “is ready to hear.” Before transformation can be put into place, there has to be a time of silence, a time of waiting in readiness to receive the new call.  Samuel’s ability to listen was a gift.  Dr. King’s ability to listen was a gift.  To be a prophet demands a listening ear.  We have to hear accurately before we can hold a vision with clarity.

On this Sunday It’s important to pass on the truth telling stories.  On December 1, 1955, a seamstress by the name of Rosa Parks climbed the steps of the Cleveland Avenue Bus in downtown Montgomery.  She had put in another long tiring day on her feet at the Montgomery Fair—a leading department store.  Mrs. Parks sat down in the first row behind the section reserved for whites.  Shortly after, the bus driver ordered her along with three other African American passengers to move back to accommodate the boarding white passengers.  Every seat in the bus was taken.  This meant that if Mrs. Parks gave up her seat, she would have to stand while a white male passenger, who had just boarded, would sit.  The other three passengers immediately complied, but Mrs. Parks quietly refused.  The result was her arrest.

Calls by God do not happen in isolation.  In order for systems to be impacted, there must be a community response.  Rosa Parks “No” was the catalyst for the Black Community to come together and collectively stand for their rights.  The non-violent nature of the movement is a solid tribute to Dr. King.  And it is a tribute to African American Churches who stood by one another and were willing to go without city transportation…willing to slog through the snow and to go out of their way to support one another for the good of the whole community.

Dr. King viewed the boycott as the community…”withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our economic support from the bus company.”  The aim was to not cooperate with evil.  The choice was to not respond like Eli—to not passively accept evil without protesting against it.  That night, the Montgomery improvement Association was formed, and Dr. King was elected President.  During the one year and thirteen day boycott, groups who had historically kept walls between them dropped those walls to unite for the common cause.

What should cause us to lose sleep? Economic disparity?  Educational disparity?  The Ferguson story?  1 in 3 Black males can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. People of color are 30% of the U.S. population and 60% of those who are imprisoned.

African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to an adult prison.  And, our seminarian, Lacey Hunter recently spoke of her experience of imprisonment having been a “Black Lives Matter” protestor in Berkeley.

This morning we have welcomed baby Lars into our community, and we have embraced the role of helping to raise him.  We’ve committed ourselves to being a place of welcome. We’ve committed ourselves to passing on our beliefs and our values to the next generation. It is where he will learn to see social justice work in action.  This is the community who will not be perfect, but will seek in our vulnerable ways to grow in our understanding of what it means to be followers of the way of Jesus.   And, we’ve committed ourselves to loving one another.  And, most importantly, it’s the community that we rely on to hold hope for us when we reach those tired, fearful places where we cannot hold it for ourselves. I wish it could be as easy as gathering in a circle and singing Kumbaya—but it is challenging work.  And the truth about loving one another is when we are our best selves it supports a culture of wholeheartedness that people sense when they come through our doors.

The gift of vulnerability—the gift of not numbing ourselves…is that we have the challenge of experiencing creativity, joy and gratitude that comes when we are able to offer truth and forgiveness along the journey.  Like Samuel, we’re called to listen for where God invites us to speak truth to power.  And, on this Sunday when we welcome baby Lars, we are reminded of our important role of raising up our children.

And on this Sunday when we will listen to seminarian Marie Bat’el walk us through her journey, we are reminded of our important role in raising up leaders.

On this Sunday when we bless those within our community who are leaving for Haiti seeking to make a difference, we are reminded of our important role in supporting actions that build on the dream of a Beloved Community.

We as a community are committed to passing on God’s dream for all humankind.  We are adding our voices and our actions believing that as a community we’ve been called to make a difference.  And, we know that no matter how lonely the journey, no matter how challenging the work, God has promised to never leave us or forsake us. God stands ready to transform our world and us.  The early successes of the Civil Rights Movement came from a two-fold venture.  Being grounded in God and the community which fueled and sustained the actions in the world.

What does God desire for us in this season of transition?  With new members come new gifts and the opportunity to live into new calls by God upon our corporate life.  May God grant us strength to take the risks we are called to make to name and denounce barriers to liberation.  As Samuel said:  Speak God, for your servants are listening.  Amen