MLK Day Prayer

Still-speaking God:
We give thanks to you
for the prophets of the past,
but we confess:
your modern-day messengers
make us uncomfortable.
Forgive us, God, and disturb us.
Send your Spirit among us,
that we may hear your Word for us,
in the words of our scripture,
in the whispers of our hearts
in the warnings of your prophets,
and in the weeping of the world.

Ready for Samuel

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

Take a look at the scripture reference for today. Notice the parentheses? That’s exactly how the lectionary lists this Sunday’s reading. Sometimes these parentheses are just a matter of brevity, an alternative, shorter version. But sometimes they are a sort of ratings warning: mature themes, Parental Guidance suggested.  They say to the preacher, you might want to skip this part. Some folks might not be ready for it.

Well, as you might expect, this just tends me make me a lot more interested in what is inside those parentheses.

Today’s lesson, then, comes to us in two parts. The first part of the story – the part before the parentheses — is the one we usually hear for the children’s message. It’s an appropriate scripture for a G-rated sermon. But we do not live in a G-rated world, and so our faith cannot be G-rated, either. The Bible certainly isn’t.

So here’s the full, uncensored version of the story:

Samuel was the first born son of a woman named Hannah, born to her after she prayed to God to give her a child. As soon as Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him to the Temple at Shiloh, and she left him there, offering him as a servant to God. From that time on, Samuel was raised by the Temple priest, Eli. Eli already had two grown sons of his own, Hophni and Phineas.

The priesthood at that time was a hereditary office, and so Eli’s sons served under him at Shiloh. And although Eli himself was by all accounts devout and responsible in his own priestly duties, his sons were not. Whenever someone brought an animal to sacrifice to the LORD, Eli’s sons would demand the best portion of the meat for themselves – though by law, this portion should have been offered to God.  Moreover, they seduced – or perhaps coerced – the young women who served at the tent of meeting. They were guilty of embezzling from the church and sexual misconduct with their flock. And Eli, the head priest, knew all of this; and though he privately chastised his sons, he took no action to remove them from their offices, but allowed the abuse to continue.

Some things haven’t changed much, in the past few millennia.

It is into this dysfunctional family of faith that young Samuel is adopted. How much of this clergy abuse had he witnessed himself, as he grew up? We don’t know. But as he grows, as he approaches adolescence, a moment comes when God awakens him in the night, and tells him, this cannot continue.

At first Samuel thinks it is Eli calling. Eli, who has been both father and priest to Samuel for most of his young life. Eli, who has been the voice of authority, the voice of conscience. In this household of faith, it is Eli who speaks for God, and Samuel listens to Eli. But tonight, Samuel will listen to God, directly, without parental guidance or priestly interpretation. Tonight, Samuel will listen; and tomorrow, Samuel will speak.

Samuel lies awake all night. It is never easy, to speak truth to power. How much harder, when the one in power is one whom we love. How much deeper the disappointment; how much greater the risk.

I’m going to fast forward us in time, now, from ancient Israel, to twentieth century America, to year of my birth, in fact. 1963 was a significant year in American history, and not because I was born in it. Four months before I was born, on Good Friday, 1963, there was a civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama. The Birmingham police used police dogs to break up what was an otherwise peaceful protest, and they carted many of the protestors off to jail. Among them was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, who had travelled from Atlanta to Birmingham at the invitation of local civil right leaders.

King spent several nights alone in a narrow jail cell, equipped with a metal cot but no mattress. It can’t have been comfortable, trying to sleep there. I imagine Martin, like Samuel, lay awake all night. At some point, King began writing out the words of a letter – a letter addressed, not to the perpetrators of racial violence, but rather to the clergy. Not to those who abused his people, but to those who had observed the abuse, and had remained silent.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King commended those few white clergy who had fought to integrate their own congregations. But he went on to say:

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body.

I’m guessing young Samuel’s speech to Eli was probably a lot less eloquent, but the tears and the disappointment must have been much the same.

So let us return to Samuel, standing there in Eli’s room after a sleepless night. In fear and trembling, Samuel relays God’s word to Eli: that Eli is destined to outlive both his sons, and watch the family line come to an end. And Eli, to his credit, listens; he recognizes the word of God when he hears it. Indeed, according to the story, it is Eli that teaches Samuel to listen for God’s word. Eli has done his best to teach the faith to his young charge, and he has taught him well.

But as Christ reminded his disciples, all of us are forever students, when it comes to knowing God. As a colleague recently commented, the church doesn’t need a learned clergy, so much as we need a learning clergy; and there is a time when even a teacher needs to be taught.

Some of you know that before entering the ministry I was for many years a teacher, at a private school in Washington, DC. The school’s mission statement, as crafted during the years I taught there, described us as a faculty of life-long learners, dedicated to creating for our students a culture of “nurtured risk-taking.” Nurtured risk-taking is something of a paradox, I’ll admit, but not that far from the mission of the church, when you think about it. Samuel knew something about nurtured risk-taking. So did Martin Luther King Jr.

During the years that I taught there, the majority of Washington DC’s citizens were African American, but the great majority of both faculty and students at the school were white. I should clarify, that this was not because of any intentional policy of exclusion, but because of all the constellation of factors that tend to perpetuate our historical legacy of racism. As teachers, we liked to think of ourselves as a welcoming and inclusive community, dedicated to making our classrooms safe for all.

One day, I walked into our usual weekly faculty meeting in the school auditorium. On the stage, there was a row of chairs; on the chairs, there were maybe eight or ten high schoolers. There were sophomores and seniors, boys and girls, artists and athletes – but all of them, students of color.  A substantial percentage, actually, of the school’s African American student body at the time. The head of the school explained to the faculty that this group of students had come to her, requesting an audience with the faculty; and that our job was to listen.

The students then spoke, each in turn, about their experience at our school.  About the subtle ways in which they were reminded, constantly, of their minority status. Of the ways in which the history of white Americans was treated as the main storyline, and the history of African Americans was treated as an optional sidebar. Of the ways in which the experience of white Americans was assumed as the norm, and the experience of black Americans was treated as an exception. Of the times they felt pressured to keep silent – or, just as frustrating, pressured to speak for their entire race. They spoke of the failure of us, as white teachers, to educate ourselves better.

This was hard listening, for us.

We wanted to defend ourselves. We wanted to reassure them of our good intentions. We wanted to distance ourselves from responsibility – after all, I was just the science teacher, I could hardly be blamed for the history curriculum, right? But thank God, we did not. None of us. We listened, as our courageous students spoke truth to power. I’ve never felt so humbled and so proud all at the same time.

I wonder if Eli felt that same way.

We all love the story of the eager young boy, called by God in the middle of the night. Kids hearing this story naturally identify with Samuel, as they should. But what about those of us who are no longer children?  Where are we in this story? We all want to identify with the young hero who speaks truth to power; but what if we are the power? What if we are not Samuel? What if we are Eli?

Are we ready, for Samuel? Will we recognize him, when he stands before us?

Each week, after our scripture reading, we sing that God is still speaking, and that we are listening. Well, then, we better be prepared for some hard listening. Because maybe God is speaking to us, as God spoke to Samuel. Or, maybe, God is speaking to us, as God spoke to Eli. Either way, it is the same God. Are we ready to listen, either way? Are we ready to recognize injustice, even when it is our own? Are we ready, not merely to recognize it, but to do something about it?

Are we ready, for Samuel?

Let us pray:

God of Samuel and of Eli, Give us the courage to speak when it is time for us to speak, the courage to listen when it is time for us to listen, and the wisdom to know the difference.        Amen.

(this sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ, January 18, 2015; in remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

(Photo: “Richmond, Calif., Police Chief Chris Magnus gained nationwide attention recently for holding a “BlackLivesMatter” protest sign. (Twitter)” )