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Listening and Speaking

January 15, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

The Second Sunday after Epiphany / Race Relations Sunday, January 15, 2012

 1 Samuel 3: 1-20          John 1: 43-51

 Thanks be to God for this which is God’s holy word, and to God’s name let there be praise. Amen.

I offer this prayer every Sunday as I finish reading the scripture. The worship leader often says “The word of the Lord, thanks be to God.” Or something similar.

Before the scripture is read we offer a prayer for illumination. John Calvin introduced the prayer for illumination into reformed liturgy to acknowledge that although the Scripture is the Word of God written, unless the Holy Spirit illumines it, speaks through it, speaks to us, they are just words. The Holy Spirit must make it the Word of God for us. And to us.

These two prayers, before and after the reading, acknowledge that God must speak through God’s Word. They acknowledge that God has just spoken, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

We heard in our first scripture today that in the time of Eli, when Samuel was still a boy, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days, [and] visions were not widespread.”

Eli was a priest at Shiloh. When Joshua first led God’s people into the land of promise, the road led to this small farming community in the hill country of Ephraim. Shiloh’s relative unimportance made it an ideal place to stake their claim in this new country, and for 200 years it was Israel’s military and religious center. It was in Shiloh that the Ark of the Covenant was kept, where the priests interceded for the people; it was where God’s Word was spoken. Shiloh held an annual festival to which pilgrims would come to make their annual sacrifice. It was as such a pilgrim that Hannah came when she was barren in order to seek God’s blessing. And it was the priest Eli who reminded her that the God of Israel is a God who looks with favor on the downcast, who gives hope to the hopeless, who can make a way when there is no way; It was Eli who told her “Go in peace. The God of Israel grant the petition you have made.” The result was Samuel.

As our story begins, Samuel is a boy serving in the temple in fulfillment of the vow his mother had made. He wore the sacred Ephod during worship, and his mother would bring a little robe to him each year during the pilgrimage. Samuel was, as the scripture says, “growing up in the presence of the Lord.”  But Eli, in contrast, has grown old, and we are told that his eyesight has grown dim. This isn’t merely a physical description; it’s a spiritual one. Eli does not desire to see what is going on. He turns a blind eye to what his sons, also priests, are doing. 

Eli’s boys, Hophni and Phinneas, are priests in the shrine at Shiloh. But they were scoundrels. According to scripture, “they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priest to the people.” Worse than mere negligence, Hophni and Phinneas have corrupted their office and abused the people. Reports of have come to Eli: Hophni is having sex with women who come to worship, Phinneas looks with “a greedy eye” at all the meat brought for sacrifice, and has had made for himself a special three pronged fork with which he picks out the choicest and fattiest pieces.  Eli had reprimanded them once, but they ignored him, and Eli did little more. Eli seems not to have retired, but simply to have abdicated his responsibilities.

No wonder it is said that the word of the Lord was rare. Who was going to speak it?

But God will not tolerate such faithlessness, particularly among the leaders of the people. And so judgment falls on Eli’s household. Because he would not speak out against his sons, their corruption, and their abuse of the people, the family would be removed from the office of the priesthood. And Samuel would deliver the message.

I have wrestled all week with the idea of God removing someone from office.

On January 6th (Epiphany) Kansas State Representative Mike O’Neal was forced to apologize for circulating a racist email about the First Lady, Michelle Obama.

The email, which included the subject line “Twins separated at birth?” contained a picture of Michelle Obama, her hair made messy by the wind, next to an image of the Grinch. “I’m sure you’ll join me,” the email read, “in wishing Mrs. YoMama a wonderful, long Hawaii Christmas vacation — at our expense, of course.”

“Sorry,” O’Neal wrote, “just had to forward this latest holiday message. I’ve had worse hair days, but this is pretty funny.”

While Speaker O’Neal originally tried to defend the email as political humor, the public outcry forced an apology. But even as he was issuing the apology – which by the way doesn’t admit that he did anything wrong, only that’s he’s sorry if anyone was offended, that wasn’t his intent – even as he was issuing the “apology” Mike O’Neal was forwarding another email, for which he is not apologizing.

Citing Psalm 109 verse 8, “Let his days be few; and let another take his office,” O’Neal offered his own commentary: “At last — I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president! Look it up — it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN? AMEN!!!!!!”

Some of you may know that Psalm 109 first emerged in conservative circles almost three years ago, quickly becoming available on bumper stickers, T-shirts, even teddy bears and tea-cozies. “Pray for the President! Psalm 109:8.” (It’s funny, right? Cute?) It is supposedly a prayer for a one term president, “let his days be few; and let another take his office.” But the following verses continue

May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.

May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.

May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.

May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.

In other words, it speaks to ending his term of office by ending his life. Those, including the KS speaker who have circulated this psalm, have tried to defend themselves by arguing that they cited only verse 8.  Of course, verse 8, has a context, a deadly one.  This point was highlighted by a number of media articles over the last week.  But something that Mike O’Neil and apparently even public critics have missed thus far is that the passage cited is a curse calling for the death of a leader, but in psalm 109 this curse is spoken by the psalmist’s enemies. The psalmist is repeating the curse that his enemies have directed at him.  The psalmist is under assault, and is turning to God for protection. The psalmist knows and trusts that while his enemies can call down curses, God sends down blessings. So the prayer “let his days be few” is the prayer of the psalmist’s enemies. God’s people do not pray like this.  That’s what I want to stress first:  God’s people do not pray like this.

But secondly, we need to name the racism that lies behind how the words of Psalm 109 are being used as well as the racism of the “Yomomma”  appellation, and the racism of those who find it funny. We need to name the racism that lies behind some opposition to the President, the fear and hatred of a black man in power, and the racism of a society in which joking about the death of a black man is acceptable; even when he is our President. We need to speak about the racism driving some of our current politics, from immigration reform to foreign policy. It has been said that racism is our nation’s original sin. “Racism,” write Dale Andrews, “is one of the most pernicious and permeating realities of life in North America. Unchecked, it will destroy both people of color and people of European origin.”[1] And when it is encountered, someone needs to speak up; WE need to speak up.[2]

When I witness racism like I’ve seen in these emails, from elected officials or those who hope to be elected, I think of another prayer from the psalms, a prayer God’s people actually pray: “How long, O God, How long?”

So interestingly enough, our passage from Scripture talks quite directly about God removing Eli from office. Standing under judgment, and finally recognizing that this might be the voice of Israel’s God, Eli instructed the young boy Samuel to lie down a fourth time beside the Ark of the Covenant. If you hear your name again, you should say “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

If all we had was the first ten verses of this story (the part that most of us know well) then we would have an almost idyllic story about a young boy who listens when he hears God calling. We would sing “Here I am, Lord,” and remind ourselves to listen, for God still speaks to God’s people.

But in the second half of the story, verses 11-20, we find something else. When God speaks, God says “See, I am about to do a new thing in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” And that new thing will be the raising up of a prophet to speak truth to power. Samuel’s first message was a tough one to deliver. He had to speak God’s judgment on Eli, to Eli.  And Eli encourages him. He may be a poor priest and father, but when it counts he is able to offer guidance to this young boy, to prepare him not only to hear, but to speak God’s Word.

Eli recognizes this as “the Word of the Lord.” He bows his head, accepts the weight of judgment which has been long in coming; he says “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”

And this is what we find in the second half of the story: Samuel learns that he must not only listen, be he must also speak; speak up, speak out, speak truth. When the prophets speak, the word of the Lord is again present and active in the land.

Listen to this marvelous sentence again, “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-Sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet.” When the prophets speak truth, the word of the Lord is again present and active in the land.

I know it is only the second week of Epiphany, but I am already looking forward to Lent when the Christian Education Commission will be leading us in a discussion of the Belhar Confession of Faith. Emerging out the reformed church in South Africa, Belhar addresses racism in the body of Christ.

Today is the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the foremost Americans who have helped our nation name, confront and begin to cleanse that original sin of racism.  Dr. King was an epic orator and a prolific preacher.  He used his words carefully to reveal, to appeal and to heal.  Just months before his assassination, he delivered a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in which he speaks of how he would like to hear himself eulogized by others.  And this is what he had to say.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get someone to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that’s not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like to somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be on the right side of the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

And that’s all I want to say . . . if I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain. If I can do my duty as a Chritian ought, if I can bring salvation to a world once wrought, if I can spread the message as the master taught, then my living will not be in vain.

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right side or your best side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition, but I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.[3]

One night as he slept in the shrine, God called a boy, “Samuel” and Samuel listened and spoke.  One lonely night at the kitchen table, God called a preacher, “Martin” and Martin listened and spoke.  And this Sunday morning, God’s calling to you and to me “Vinodh, Grace, Lynn, Norma, Melanie, Wanda, Beryl, David, Sharon… Jeff”.  May we listen and speak.

© 2012 The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary


[1] Dale Andrews, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B. WJK, 2010

[2]Concerned with what Speaker O’Neal has done and said?  You can call the Speaker at 785-296-2302 or e-mail mike.oneal@house.ks.gov.  Leave a respectful message about how you feel and what you hope he’ll do to make amends.

[3]“The Drum Major Instinct” . . . from a sermon delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., at Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968. Taken from Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by James M. Washington.

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