Words at the Door
1 Sam 3:1-18
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
There is a critical moment in almost every good story when the outcome hangs in the balance, when you know that the next few sentences will alter the course of the tale, and you decide whether you have the courage to read on and face whatever the story holds in store. There is one of those moments in the story of Samuel and Eli. It comes as morning dawns above Shiloh, and Samuel puts his hand on the inner handle of the temple door, but just before he tugs it open. In that instant, just before Samuel has to tell Eli the awful truth he has heard in the night—before his words begin that torrent of events that flows from the demise of the family of Eli to Saul to David and Solomon and the division of the kingdom, to battles and bloodshed and conquest all the way to the destruction of Jerusalem and the weeping of exiles by the rivers of Babylon—in that moment, I can’t help but wonder if Samuel’s hand doesn’t tremble a bit in anticipation of the word he is about to set in motion, a word that will not stop echoing down the centuries until it climbs to a barren hill on Good Friday and nails us to a cross.
But I’m ahead of myself. You know the story, and if you didn’t, you heard it a few moments ago. It begins quietly enough, with Samuel on his mat inside the temple and old blind Eli lying in his bedchamber just outside the door. “The lamp of God had not yet gone out,” says the text in what must surely be as prescient a poetic symbol as I’ve heard in a while—God dimly present, but not quite gone. Then, when the air is finally settled and rustling of bedclothes stilled, comes the voice, just above a whisper, “Samuel! Samuel!”
It was surely Eli. For as long as he could remember, for as long as he had been able to hear and understand, the old priest had been calling, and Samuel had been doing what he would now do again: get up and see what the old man wanted. Who knew what lowly errand it might be this time: a ladle of water, help with nightclothes against the evening chill. There was nothing to do but go and see. “Here I am,” Samuel said, “for you called me.”
But it wasn’t Eli. Perhaps it had been the boy’s imagination, or the wind moaning mindlessly in the trees, but it hadn’t been the priest. So Samuel went back and lay down, returning to his interrupted rest… until the voice called again. “Samuel!” and the little scene was re-enacted.
It wasn’t until the voice spoke a third time that the importance of the moment began to dawn like the still-distant sun in the eastern sky. And even then, it wasn’t the boy who understood, but the priest. It had been years, too many years, since he had heard it, so perhaps the old man could be forgiven for not recognizing the voice of God when it whispered in the night. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” says the text. In its place had been too many words complaining about the behavior of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, men who had neither the faith nor moral fiber of their father, men who loved power for the abuses it made possible. Eli had heard so many of those words that his ears were nearly as numb as his eyes were blind. But now the light was dawning, and the old man understood at last. “Go back and lie down,” he said to the boy, “and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”
So Samuel waited in the darkness for the voice to call again. And call it did, but not the voice only; the LORD “came and stood there,” says the text, calling yet again. And Samuel, feeling God knows what dread depths of awe and terror, did not forget his instructions, but answered with ancient words: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And then, at long last, the word of the LORD was heard again in the temple of Eli, but not words of comfort—no, words of divine judgment about to fall on the old priest and his worthless sons, words so filled with wrath and power that they would “make the two ears of anyone who heard them tingle.” They were words Samuel did not want to hear, and did not know what to do with once he heard them, so he lay back down on his bed behind the closed doors of the temple and waited for daylight.
And now comes that heart-stopping moment. Daylight dawned, and Samuel swung open the temple doors, and there was Eli, waiting for the word he knew must have come, even if it no longer came to him. Surely Samuel must have wanted to hold his tongue, but Eli was starved for the word, any word, from the LORD, and he insisted that Samuel tell him every syllable. So Samuel let it all spill out, all the promises of wrath and punishment, all the divine settling of affairs he had heard detailed in the darkness. Eli listened, hearing the truth toll like a funeral bell, hearing his insight confirmed even as he heard his own heart breaking. “It is the LORD,” was all he said, and all he could say.
This is a story about words. Above all else, it is a story about the word of the Lord, which, as the text reminds us, “was rare in those days.” And yet, for all its rarity, it is curiously abundant. I counted the number of times the word word or its derivatives occur in these eighteen verses: fifteen times, more than twice the occurrence of any other word. It is as though, in a story about the scarcity of the word of the Lord, the word is literally lying about all over the place, waiting for someone to hear.
What a deep and painful irony there is here! Those who believe the word of the LORD is nowhere to be found are virtually tripping over it, and the one who heard the word pronounce its judgment has to be taught how to listen by the very one on whom the judgment is pronounced. The one who most yearned to hear the word could not, and the one who heard yearned not to hear it. The one who had spent his life serving the LORD was out of the room when the LORD at long last called, and the one who was called did not know it was the LORD calling.
In the end, though, this is a story about obedience. Samuel obeys, even when obedience is the one thing would rather not have done. But even more suprising and to the point, Eli obeys, despite what we might expect. At the story’s end, when the word has finally been spoken and the judgment pronounced, Eli makes no attempt to deny its truth or escape its consequences. Instead, he accepts the awful verdict on everything he loves, seeing at last the one vision his blind eyes see only too clearly. It is the LORD, he says.
Tomorrow we observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Observing Dr. King’s birthday has become an occasion for reflecting on the prophetic values of his speeches, and on his life-sacrificing witness against the evils of racism in this society. As the events of the past year have amply shown us, accompanied by endless video footage from Ferguson, MO or New York City, racism is as alive and well as it has ever been. And change is afoot, motivated by people whose motives are a mixture of good and ill, wisdom and folly. Sometimes that change seems chaotic, out of control, and likely to create as many problems as it solves. Not all of us celebrate its coming. But it comes; steadfastly it comes.
In a sermon on words—especially words we need to hear even if we don’t want to—it would make sense to release the thunder of Dr. King’s mighty words on us, like the voice of God in the temple, to remind us once again of how far we have fallen short of the goal of a society in which people will “be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character,” and to inspire us to recommit to that goal once again. That would be fitting, and needed, and it’s being done in pulpits all over this country today.
But I’m not going to do that. Partly, it’s because Dr. King’s words are already so familiar that there is a danger we will muffle their thunder, that we will hear them with the same sort of comfortable appreciation that people with white skin and progressive attitudes often have: that somehow those words apply to others but not to us. Partly—and this cuts a bit closer to home—it’s because I not at all sure that Dr. King’s words don’t sound a bit hollow on the tongue of a white man born and bred in the deep South, the cradle of segregation.
But mostly, I’m not going to read Dr. King to you because I can’t get away from the sense that my role—our role—in these days of racial renegotiation is not so much to be the divine voice tolling the arrival of cataclysmic change as it is to be Samuel standing at the door of the temple with the voice of God still ringing in his ears, knowing that he will live through that change, and that it will alter or destroy the things and people he loves. There is something about having to bear witness to the word you least want to hear that makes the heart stop and the breath catch in the throat and the fingers tremble as they reach for the door handle.
I’ve been thinking about my father. As many of you know, my dad died last month, at the age of 92, after a long career as a Presbyterian minister. He was a southern boy, raised on the north side of Nashville in a family so poor they didn’t really notice the Great Depression. His father was a carpenter for the Tennessee Central Railroad, back in the days when boxcars were still made of wood, and that would have been Dad’s life as well had World War II and the GI Bill not intervened. But between high school graduation and the day he went off to war, he worked in the carpentry shop as an apprentice, and he learned there how black men were treated, even by white men who weren’t any better off or better educated than they were. It made him realize that there were some things about his beloved southern society that didn’t quite square with his notions of what was fair and right.
All of that came home to roost in the late 1960s when Dad, now pastor of the Central Park-Ensley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL, had to respond to an invitation. It was the weekend after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, and the call went out from several black pastors in town to all the white pastors, inviting them and members of their congregations to participate in a march in downtown Birmingham in a show of racial solidarity. Almost nobody in west Birmingham—our part of town—had any intention of going. Most of them wanted to block the path of social change, like George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. They condemned Dr. King as an “outside agitator” and had not greeted the news of his assassination with sorrow. To the Central Park session, this march also threatened to antagonize members. After all, too many of them were already leaving behind the grit and grime belched from smokestacks of the US Steel Fairfield Works and moving “over the mountain,” as we used to say, to the posh suburbs of Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook. Let’s not do anything to make the situation worse, was what they said.
All the same, Dad told the session – the same men who five years before had voted to bar black families from worshiping in our congregation—that he intended to march. He asked the session to join him, as a way of showing that race relations could be better if we all worked together, but only one member promised to show up. Three others threatened to leave the church. I don’t remember anything else ever being said about it. But I know that moment colored the next seven years of his ministry there.
Dad was not a brave man, in the sense that he was willing to take controversial public stands. He wouldn’t even tolerate political bumper stickers on the car or signs in the yard. He was always more concerned to hold the little flock together against the battering winds of social change. He was not the type to preach fire to thousands, and much more the type to hedge his words carefully so as not to offend the hundred or so hunkered down in that sanctuary week after week. I imagine his hands probably trembled when he reached for the door handle of our green ’65 Chevy in the parking lot where the march began. I suspect he knew that by opening the door he was acknowledging the coming of a torrent of events that would sweep away a lot of things and people he loved. And I suspect he knew he would have to open that door anyway. And he did.
I went back to Birmingham a few years ago and found that the sanctuary of the old Central Park-Ensley church—now defunct—was occupied by an African American Pentecostal congregation. I thought of Dad and found myself smiling.
Hearing the word of the Lord is a hard thing. It’s hard because our acculturation and experience have led us to believe that God isn’t speaking, or at least isn’t speaking to us, or perhaps that we’ve already heard all we need to know. We get so used to equating what feels comfortable to us with what God wants from us that we forget there is a difference between the two.
But every now and then, the word of the Lord breaks through and forces us out of the lethargy of our convenient assumptions. Every now and then, we hear the word we don’t want to hear, the word that will alter the landscape of our reality. And in those moments we have a choice. We can put our hands on the door handle and—in a moment of true fear and trembling—tug it open and face the future God holds in store. Or we can go back to bed.
Here’s the thing, though. The dawn is coming anyway, even if we pull the covers over our heads in an effort to deny it. The new day is coming anyway, and it is God’s day, and God is in it. The only real question is whether we will be on our feet when it arrives, or still trying to go back to sleep.