Archive for January, 2021

“Opening the restaurant,” (Sermon, January 17th 2021)

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’
15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ 17Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

1 Samuel 3:1-20

On Tuesday I gathered with fourteen other clergy on Zoom to begin a new anti-racism pilot project. Led by Natasha Aruliah, an intercultural consultant, for the first session we discussed the many things that hinder frank discussion about racism.

One of the videos we were given to watch beforehand was a Ted talk by Dr. Camara Jones, a Black physician, epidemiologist, and anti-racist activist. Dr. Jones used four stories to help illustrate what prevents people from recognizing systems of oppression.

Screenshot from Dr. Jones’ Tedx Talk.

One of them was about a trip to a restaurant with some friends, before COVID-19. Although it was late they found a restaurant that was still open, but it closed while they were still having their meal. Dr. Jones watched as a worker turned the window sign from “Open” to “Closed.” She said that to anyone on the street, it might appear confusing, because while the sign said, “Closed,” they would see that there were people eating in the restaurant through the windows.

She then said that, to her, sitting on the inside, the sign said “Open.” And that was when she started reflecting on the double-sided nature of the sign, and how it was an excellent illustration of what it’s like to hold privilege.

“To me, from my vantage point,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “the sign says ‘Open,’ so anyone should be able to come in. But I can’t see that the sign is double-sided. To the people standing outside, who can see me sitting in an ostensibly ‘Closed’ restaurant, it’s clear that the sign is double-sided – because if the restaurant were really closed, there wouldn’t be people in it.”

Crucially, if I’m on the inside, I can insist, “All are welcome!”, but if that’s not followed up with action, it’s meaningless, no matter how good my intentions are. Intent is not enough to open the door.

In the chapter previous to the one we just read from the First Book of Samuel, Eli is serving as priest in the temple with his sons. His sons are abusing their privilege to steal from worshipers who bring sacrifice and take advantage of women who guard the door to the tent of meeting. Eli tries to discipline them, appealing to their better nature, but there’s no point in appealing to someone’s better nature when they’re that committed to bad faith villainy – not because they don’t have a better nature, but because when you’re that entitled, you won’t listen to anyone. True repentance only comes when you finally hit the bricks and properly reckon with yourself, and no-one can compel that from another person.

Using Dr. Jones’s metaphor, Eli and his sons are in the restaurant. I’d suggest that Eli does know the sign is double-sided. He sees the abused community standing out on the street, and implores his sons to take notice. But they’re so drunk on power that they don’t even care if the sign is double-sided or not. They’ve gone beyond denial and have embraced the notion of, “Well, if those people are locked outside they must deserve it.”

Eli is faced with a choice. He can choose to let the people in himself. Better still, he can drag his sons to the door by the ear and kick them out.

But he doesn’t.

He just goes back to his plate and mourns how naughty his sons are being, as though he doesn’t have any way to fix that. Perhaps he was afraid of them. But he also has the weight of his own authority as priest. He could make use of it, instead of squandering it. I would hazard a guess that Eli has probably always been like this: coasting, unwilling to make waves, trying to please everyone rather than focusing on pleasing God, as a priest should. He seems a kind soul, but again, the mere intent to do good by and for his people doesn’t matter as long as his sons are tearing them up.

The writer of the Book of Samuel even shows us this through how Eli is described. In today’s reading we learn that his sight has started to become dim. This is not just an incidental fact. It’s a metaphor for how he has lived his life: not able to see the forest for the trees.

You might think I’m being hard on Eli, and you’d be right. But not because he’s made mistakes. We all do. It’s more than he keeps making the same mistakes, over and over, despite being given many opportunities to turn things around. He’s given up and is just going with the flow that his privilege affords him.

Oh, how often I’ve been an Eli.

It doesn’t mean that I’m unlovable. That is never the case. It just means that a kick in the rear is probably coming soon, and no-one likes that.

Eli’s kick actually doesn’t start with Samuel. In Chapter 2, Eli receives a prophecy from someone the text simply refers to as “a man of God.” Through him God warns that Eli will lose everything. What’s especially telling is that we don’t see Eli’s response to this.

Little Samuel’s prophecy simply confirms that of the man of God. Perhaps we’re meant to infer that Eli has affection for Samuel and is more willing to listen to him. But still, he seems resigned to his fate, which is rather sad. The Bible is full of stories of people turning things around and getting back into God’s good graces, but Eli doesn’t even bother. In the restaurant metaphor, maybe he’s put down his knife and fork and is just staring at the wall, perhaps with his back to the window, unwilling to watch his eventual and certain reckoning burst through.

Eli takes no risks, and receives no reward. His sons will be killed by Philistines in the next chapter, and when he receives the news, Eli, by then completely blind, will keel over in a faint and break his neck.

His one grace seems to be doing right by Samuel, encouraging him to tell the truth even if it hurts, which Samuel does. And of course, Samuel will go on to become a true spiritual leader, calling the people to repentance, actively encouraging them to seek redemption. When his own sons sadly go the way of Eli’s, he raises up Saul and David so that appropriate successors will not shame his legacy.

Samuel by no means ends his life as a sinless saint, but at each new opportunity he tries to remember to put down his cutlery and open the door.

There have surely been times in our lives where we knew what it felt like to be on the outside of the restaurant looking in. And surely there have also been times where we have been on the inside, and, like Eli, have been called to notice the double-sided sign, and maybe open the door, or at least try to convince someone with more power than us to open it, like Samuel does – knowing that saying so may cost us everything.

And surely sometimes we have, and other times we haven’t. I know that’s how it’s been for me.

Eli may have had the best seat in the house, but he forfeited his own soul to keep it.

We can choose to open doors. We can choose how to use our words and spend our money. We can choose where to put our time and energy. We can choose to say no to pretending everything is okay when it’s not.

You’ve already made a choice by coming here today. Like Nathanael you chose to take a risk on meeting a stranger from a backward town, a stranger who, it turns out, is no stranger at all, who knows us by name and loves us truly, madly, deeply, who is calling us to see greater things even than being known and loved so well.

What could possibly be better than that?

How about Love blowing those restaurant doors off the hinges and the windows out of their frames?

How about Love setting a table so big every single creature in the universe could find a seat at it, no matter who we are, or who we once were?

Song of the Magi (Anaïs Mitchell cover)

I wanted to do another version of this; I wasn’t happy with the one I posted on Instagram. Happy Epiphany! Welcome to the brawl.