a welcoming, affirming, justice-seeking congregation

January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-20

By no stretch of the imagination was Eli a model of faithfulness, a shining example of perfect servanthood. Nearing the end of his life, looking back on his life, Eli would have been the first to acknowledge that he was no Abraham, no Moses, nor had he aspired to be. He’d been in middle management, you might say, in his priestly career, and, to be truthful, he’d failed abysmally at it. This was still in pre-temple days, and gradually Eli had risen to the level of his incompetence, becoming the priest in charge of the local sanctuary at Shiloh. It was an important shrine, a regional gathering place, a symbol of the presence of God in the land, but really, Eli’s priesthood was strictly about maintenance—keeping the lamp of God lit, ensuring that the sanctuary was in working order. Never a visionary at the best of times, over the years both his literal and figurative vision had begun to fail, to the point that now he had very little left of either kind. Not even able, on his own, to keep the sanctuary light burning, he’d needed to take on a young apprentice—a child, for goodness’ sake, by the name of Samuel. A good child, eager to learn, and quite a good help, but—you know how it is. Eli had now been reduced to this. If he had wanted to retire at the pinnacle of his career, this was a sad excuse for a pinnacle. Now, by rights, it would have been Eli’s sons keeping the light of God burning, Eli’s sons tending the sanctuary, Eli’s sons providing the leadership—and vision—in the land, Eli’s sons caring for the people. Priesthood, after all, was determined by bloodline rather than by gift or call, and, had all gone according to plan, Eli’s sons would have stepped up, taken on the priestly responsibilities, and led the people through Eli’s waning years, and well beyond. But therein lay the error of Eli’s ways, and also, no doubt, the shame and sorrow of his long life, because his sons had not come through as they ought to have done. No—worse than that—they had failed miserably, looked out after their own interests, abused their power, taken advantage of the vulnerable, cared not at all for their own people, wreaked havoc in Shiloh and throughout the whole land, and brought disaster upon everyone. And what had Eli done to rein in these incorrigible sons of his, and require of them responsible and faithful behavior? Well, that’s just it. Eli had done precisely nothing. He’d spoiled them rotten, allowed them to go their own way, and never once exercised over them the kind of authority he’d needed to exercise, if the way of the God of Israel was to be observed in the land, and the covenant was to be maintained, and the light of God was to continue to burn in a meaningful way. We can see how that could happen. He’d had to make a choice, and who could choose against their own sons? No, Eli had failed in almost every aspect of his priesthood. Thanks largely to his lack of discipline in relation to his scoundrel sons, the word of God was rare in the land, and visions were not widespread.

But never mind all that. When, finally, a divine word was spoken, to the young boy who slept in the sanctuary in order to trim the wick of the light of God and keep it constantly burning—when, finally, a word was spoken, passing harsh judgment on Eli’s sons and chastising Eli for failing to get them under control—when, finally, a word was spoken, taking from Eli’s family line the privilege of leadership, and pointing the entire land in a new direction, with a mere child being called as a prophet, a mere child promised that he would become the wise and trustworthy prophet Eli never had been, a mere child promised that he would guide the people through a period of discernment and decision-making, thus rendering Eli and his family redundant and irrelevant—notice Eli’s graciousness. Notice how he opens his knotted fists and simply lets go of the ages-old tradition of his family, lets go of the hopes and dreams of an entire lifetime, accepting the judgment, embracing the oncoming changes, and granting his blessing to the child who now is surpassing him, doing what he should have been doing, all along, but couldn’t, and hadn’t. Notice Eli’s graciousness: When the boy Samuel, terrified of passing on to the old priest the word of judgment he has been given, is cajoled into doing just that, what does Eli say? Does he say, “How dare you fabricate the word of God? How dare you take authority for yourself? After all I’ve done for you! Get out of this sanctuary!”? No. Eli says, “This truly is God’s word. Let it be done according to God’s will,” and he passes the mantle of leadership over to Samuel. Graciousness. In that moment of graciousness, to my way of thinking, at least, Eli’s life is redeemed, his failure transformed into faithfulness. At great personal cost, he has opened himself to God’s word, and to the change that that word promises and proclaims. With no sign of resentment whatsoever shown toward the child who now will play the role Eli’s children should have played—claiming their birthright—Eli gives Samuel his blessing. Graciousness. And by that gracious handing-over of authority, and leadership, and vision, by that gracious recognition, and hearing, and acceptance of the word of God, the future is secured.

May we be so gracious. May we be so gracious, in this time of rare words and sparse visions. May we be so gracious as to recognize the word of God when it finally is spoken—and perhaps not directly to us, but, surprisingly, to those still young and inexperienced in life, those just learning the ways of a new and complex world—when the word comes to us secondhand, takes from our shoulders the mantle of authority, calls leaders who aren’t our own kin, and speaks of a future we neither recognize nor understand. May we be so gracious, for it is by such graciousness that the tradition carries on—changed though it may be. May we be so gracious, for it is by such graciousness that the future is secured—unfamiliar though that future may be. May we be so gracious, for it is by such graciousness that the past is redeemed.

And so old Eli, risen to the level of his incompetence, his vision gone from him, his sons the source of great heartache, his priesthood no longer effective (if it ever really was), becomes a model for us of an odd sort of faithfulness—a faithfulness that never would equal that of an Abraham or a Moses, but a faithfulness that is faithfulness, nonetheless. In the end, Eli is gracious, and his graciousness makes way for a giant shift in history.

Now, note that that shift in history wasn’t, ultimately, a roaring success, even if it wasn’t ultimately, an abject failure. Samuel’s leadership will allow the people to opt for a monarchy in Israel, and we know how controversial monarchies can be, and how dependent on the goodness, the wisdom, and the integrity of each particular occupant of the royal throne. Samuel, in his turn, will need to act graciously, and against his own better judgment, in establishing the monarchy and finding and anointing Israel’s first king. He’ll need to allow the people to grow up, so to speak, and make their own mistakes, and take responsibility for those mistakes. Eli, the old priest, muddling around in the sanctuary, has one faithful act left in him, and that is to model for the child Samuel the kind of graciousness that can let go of power, and authority, and control over the future, with no guarantee that right decisions will be made, and that faithfulness will continue—no guarantee that the light of God will be kept burning. No guarantee. Just trust in the child he’s been privileged to have had a hand in raising, there in the sanctuary where the sacred light has burned, and reliance on the promises of his good—and gracious–God.

Hmm. Gives us material to ponder, doesn’t it? More grist for the old spiritual mill. Another challenge to mull over, while we’re shoveling the church sidewalk, or washing the church tea towels, or folding the church bulletins, or practicing the church anthems—while we’re collectively keeping the light of God burning in the sanctuary we know and love so well. Even when we’ve got only one last act left in us, may it be an act of graciousness, an act of trust in our gracious God—an act that secures a future for this tradition of faithfulness, unfamiliar though that future may be to us, and that, in so doing, redeems the past. May our last act be one of graciousness. As indeed old Eli’s was. Thanks be to God. Amen.