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Addressing Morally Bankrupt Leadership

January 18, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in Epiphany / MLK Birthday Weekend, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

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 God, for the People of God.”

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 scripture today that in the time of Eli, when Samuel was still a boy, “the Word of the God 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 God.” 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 sons, Hophni and Phinneas, are priests in the shrine at Shiloh. But they were scoundrels. According to scripture, “they had no regard for God 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 using his position of power in order to have sex with women who come to worship, Phinneas is using his position of power to enrich himself; he 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 God was rare. Who was going to speak it?

If there is good news in this story, it is that 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.

Our passage from Scripture speaks about God removing Eli from office by the words of the prophet. 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 were 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. Yes, God calls even us.

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. He had to deliver God’s judgment of Eli, to Eli. And, to his credit, Eli encourages him. Eli may be a poor priest and father, but when it counts, he is able to offer guidance to the young boy Samuel, to prepare him not only to hear, but to speak God’s Word.

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

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 God is again present and active in the land.

Listen to this marvelous final sentence again, “As Samuel grew up, God 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 God is again present and active in the land.

The last time I preached on this passage was six years ago. At that time the sermon as an occasion to encourage us to speak out against a series of outrageously racist remarks then being circulated by elected officials in the Republican Party who were setting new low standards for talking about the President of the United States, Barak Obama. I had no idea how much lower our country could go, that white supremacists would soon walk the streets proudly, that outrage could become a daily experience without an end in sight, that the racism would be joined to violence, public policy, and foreign policy. Yes, it was always there, I know, but it was embarrassed in public. Now it is shameless. It is now not controversial to say, “The President of the United States is a racist and a liar.”

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Yesterday our Synod Leader, Harold Delhagen, circulated an open letter to Presbyterian Churches. He begins by writing

As with many of you, I have become weary and sad at the constant flow of hateful speech and racist rhetoric that flows from our president and his followers. The daily barrage of these words, and devastating actions that follow them, leaves me exhausted and wondering how to best use my public voice in ways that don’t simply add to the  constant  flood o f exchanges around them.  

It’s a good question, and one each of us (and we as a congregation) must answer: How can we use our public voice in ways that don’t simply add to the flood of exchanges? Because it is not just the president’s words that matter – all of our words matter at this moment. How do we, like Samuel, not let our words ‘fall to the ground’ but instead ‘be’ the words that God need spoken right now.

God calls us, each one of us, but always to particular work that addresses the urgent needs of the day.

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