June 3, 2018
Second Sunday after Pentecost
As I was preparing for this week’s sermon and reading through today’s lectionary, I realized how often we read these amazing stories from the Hebrew Bible, or what many of us grew up calling the Old Testament, but then we don’t return to them. It’s rare to hear a sermon at House for All Sinners and Saints on one of these older stories, because, frankly, Jesus always ends up stealing the show. But as I was reading the story of Samuel, who went to bed a boy and woke up a prophet, I realized that these stories are the raw material out of which our savior weaved the gospel of freedom. These are the stories that Jesus carried in his heart and that he relied upon when the nights were long and he had just had enough. Because on those days when he had dealt with just one too many senators, seminary presidents and tele-evangelists who just couldn’t believe that God would slip into human skin in order to set people free, it was to stories, like those of Noah and Jonah, Hannah and Samuel that Jesus turned to for the strength to keep going and for the wisdom to keep breaking open hard hearts, one person at a time. So, I thought, if this is where Jesus turned in order to cast the mighty down from their thrones and lift up the lowly, then maybe it’s time at House for All Sinners and Saints for a good ol’ Bible Story sermon.
So, here we go. The Story of the Conflict Avoidant Pastor, his two Asshole Sons and a Church Intern.
Once upon a time there was a pastor named Eli who had two sons. And Eli’s sons were not just your run-of-the-mill mischievous pastor’s kids—they were contenders for the Worst Pastor’s Kids Ever award. Because not only did they have a little problem with stealing all the best fried chicken from the church potluck, but before the liturgy they’d hang out by the door and see how many of the young women they could convince to skip church and engage in an altogether totally different “spiritual practice.” But like a lot of pastors, Eli was conflict avoidant and so, when he finally found out why so many women were missing from church, he didn’t exactly come down hard. He wimped out….but God was taking notes. And so was the Church. And as the years went by, folks got angrier and angrier that Eli cared more about protecting his sons’ right to party than helping those in need.
And then one night, Eli was asleep in the parsonage, and the only other person there was the new church intern, named Samuel. Now Samuel was a hard worker, he did what he was told, but he’s no pastor. He didn’t have a degree from Iliff Seminary. He hadn’t taught the scriptures backwards and forwards. Samuel hadn’t earned his right to hear the voice of God like Eli has. He was just a kid. A nobody.
And yet, that night, while this nobody, not-even-a-pastor kid is sleeping, he hears someone call out his name, “Samuel, Samuel…” and he jumps out of bed and runs to Eli. But Eli says, “I didn’t call you. Go back to bed, little boy.” And so he goes back to bed until it happens again, and again Eli says he didn’t call him. But then, after Samuel wakes up for the third time and comes running, Eli has one of those “Oh shit, that’s God” moments. Because that old priest, with his degree from Iliff Seminary and his thousands of sermons tucked under his arm realizes that this boy, this no good, nobody, not-even-a-pastor boy suddenly has the one thing Eli has been searching for his whole life and cannot find. In fact, it’s the one thing that the entire nation has been searching for and cannot find because the Book of Samuel says that, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” And yet, God gives Her Word to this young child, to this nobody God grants direct access to Truth with a capital T—the Truth that has evaded kings and presidents, priests and pastors, lawyers and pundits is revealed to a child. And more than that, Truth is revealed to a child who is sleeping, he’s not even working for it. He’s not even a child down on his hands and knees begging for God to give him a sign. Samuel is a child who is sleeping and doesn’t even know what he’s heard when he hears it.
But doesn’t this make sense? I mean, I don’t know about all of you, but whenever I’ve felt I’ve heard the voice of God, it’s not often come from myself, nor from the people and places that claim a monopoly on God’s word. Rather it’s been the unexpected people and places that awaken my soul and give me my own “Holy shit, that’s God!” moments. Like there was the time that I desperately needed to get sober, but didn’t know how, until a guy I had been chatting with in an online dating site saw me trying to wash off my shame in a laundromat and invited me to my first AA meeting.
Or when I lived in San Francisco, the voice of God often sounded a lot like the gravely, deep voice of Billie, a very old school, Marsha P Johnson era trans woman who didn’t give a flip about what anybody thought and was one of the many trans women on the frontlines of the LGBTQ Liberation movement. But Billie had this certain knack for always being right around the corner, and was always bumping into me in the street and every time she’d find a way to make me uncomfortable, because she would always find a way to remind me that I am both loved beyond measure AND still screwed up beyond measure. But even though her words always stung a little, I knew they were truth with a capital T, I knew they came straight from God because here’s the thing. The Word of God always stings, if only a little bit and sometimes it stings a lot. Because God wants more for us. God wants the best for us. And even though God loves us beyond measure, God wants us to be free, completely free to enjoy that love. And so, we know it is the voice of God when the love stings, we know it is God when we are reminded that Flint still doesn’t have clean water, that black bodies are still terrorized, and that undocumented residents still fear leaving their homes.
Because God doesn’t make her voice heard just to keep us comfortable with the status quo. Like in today’s story of Eli and Samuel, God speaks to wake us up, to arouse our awareness that our Life stretches way beyond the limits of our individual lives and the lives of just our kids, our partners, and our friends. Eli thinks he can slip through this life avoiding conflict and maintaining his sons’ privilege. But God cares too much about the lives of Eli’s congregation, God cares too much about all the lives he and his sons have stepped on over the years, and so in the middle of the night he wakes up a little boy, a no good, nobody, not-even-a-pastor boy and delivers a word. And here comes my favorite part in the story–the part where Eli’s like, “Curses on you and your family if you don’t tell me what God said!” And Samuel is like, “Ummm, well, you’re REALLY not going to like this but, remember that whole thing about your sons stealing the fried chicken and sleeping with all the women in the church? God didn’t like that so much. So, just be prepared.” But my absolutely favorite part is actually how Eli responds to learning that God will smite his family for generations to come. Eli says, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”
I mean, if I had just heard that God was going to judge me and my family, I think I’d be running in the opposite direction. But Eli seems oddly at peace with the news. Like it’s as if Eli knows that this word comes from God because it stings and from that punch in the gut he recognizes it is true. I certainly know from my own experience how the Truth can hurt, but then in the wake of that pain, my heart gets broken open and I can breathe free again. Because God wants me to be free of all the stuff that’s weighing me down and to free others from all the ways that my actions weigh them down, and the only way that that can begin to happen is by God telling me the truth.
And when we know the truth, that’s when God can really use us. That’s when we become really dangerous and the walls between us start crumbling and the chains fall off and the old world begins to pass away. And we know this because just a few hundred years after Samuel another child was born and through this nobody, no good, not-even-a-pastor son of a backwoods carpenter, the Word of God took on flesh and lived among us. He broke bread with prostitutes and tax collectors, healed the sick and proclaimed Good News to the poor. He stopped at nothing to draw the whole world to himself. And even now, that same Jesus stops at nothing to draw us in. He speaks through children, random dudes in laundromats, in chat rooms and in the streets. His Word, truth with a capital T is close at hand and though it may sting, it is for our healing and our freedom that he speaks. Amen.