“Can’t Unsee It”

pdficon_small Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 18, 2015

1 Samuel 3:1-20

 

It’s a compelling story, one we often tell; it’s a familiar one to many of us. Or at least, the first half of it is.

The first half of today’s scripture reading is a nice story—the story of a keen young student, a wise old mentor, and learning how to discern a call from God.   It’s a story about how God speaks to people, a story about how God whispers to us in the dark of the night, a story about how God knows our names and calls us to our purposes. There is good reason that this story is often read at ordinations, and confirmations, and commissionings.

The first half of today’s scripture reading is a nice story—and wouldn’t it be nicer if we just left it there? We could have just stopped halfway through, after Eli explained to Samuel that it was God who was calling to him, and that he ought to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” and so Samuel did. Period.

In fact, the creators of the lectionary—the three-year cycle of weekly scripture readings that many Christian churches follow for Sunday worship—gave us that option. The assigned reading for today was First Samuel, chapter 3, verses 1-10 (11-20). Eleven to twenty, in parentheses—that’s optional, not required, can be omitted if you prefer.

But just as an investigator reading declassified documents looks a little harder when there is text that’s been blacked out, so we ought to look a little harder when the lectionary gives us parentheses, verses that are optional and may be omitted. It may be something difficult, but it’s usually something important.

The first half of today’s scripture reading is a nice story, a gentle, inoffensive, hopeful story about learning to listen to God.

The second half of today’s scripture reading is a potent, uncomfortable, even a little bit scary story about the courage required to listen to God, and then to speak what you have heard.

 

Samuel was not just a keen young student. In fact, he was no ordinary boy. He was the first and only son of a woman named Hannah. Hannah had been barren for many years, and she would go to the temple to pray, to beg God to give her a son. Finally, after a lifetime of heartache and struggle, Hannah had a child, and she named him Samuel, which means, in Hebrew, “God has heard.” And then, just as she had promised to God in her prayers, she brought Samuel to the temple to dedicate him to the service of the Lord, and he became an apprentice to Eli.

Eli was not just a wise old mentor. In fact, he was no ordinary man. He was the chief priest of the shine at Shiloh, which was the holiest place for the Israelites at that time because it was the home of the Ark of the Covenant—that portable house of God that had accompanied the people through their years and years of wilderness wanderings. Eli was an old man, losing touch with the world. He was not as perceptive as he once had been. When Hannah would come and pray vehemently before Samuel was born, Eli thought she was drunk and tried to send her away.

Priesthood in those days was a family business; if your father was a priest, you were a priest, and your sons would become priests as well. Eli’s sons, who were heirs to his power, were debaucherous, sacrilegious scoundrels. They would go to the altars where people were making sacrifices to God, and they would bring with them a fork, and they would steal the best pieces of meat right off the altar and take them away to eat them. They would go to the gates of the shrine, where some women were praying and serving, and they would have their way with those women. Eli had been told of his sons’ misdeeds before, when a man of God came to the shrine and delivered much the same message that Samuel would later relay. Although Eli did speak to them, it did nothing to change their behavior.

And then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, ringing in his ears in the middle of the night. Three times, God called to Samuel, and three times, Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eventually, Eli determined that it was God calling the boy and sent him back to bed with instructions, which Samuel carried out. When God called his name a fourth time, Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

And then we hit the hard part. The word God spoke to Samuel was a word of judgment against Eli and his sons—a word of judgment against the powerful who use their privilege for their own ends, a word of judgment against a corrupt social order, a word of judgment against the fracturing of a world built on division between haves and have nots, between rich and poor, between in and out, between us and them.

 

If you wish we had stopped the story halfway through, imagine how Samuel felt. It can’t have been an easy message to hear—that his mentor was condemned, that the world as he knew it had gone astray from God’s ways of justice. Samuel probably wished he had never gotten out of his bed. He probably wished he had worn ear plugs that night. He probably wished he had rolled over and pulled his pillow over his head and pretended he didn’t hear anything.

To Eli’s credit, he insisted that Samuel tell him what he had heard, even if it was bad news for Eli. But deep down, I think Eli probably wished the same thing Samuel did. He probably wished he had snored loudly and pretended to be sleeping when Samuel came to his room. He probably wished he had never realized who was really calling, never told the boy what to say and how to listen.

If they hadn’t heard what God had to say, Samuel and Eli and everyone else could have just gone on living their relatively comfortable lives in peace. But once you hear a word from the Lord, you can’t pretend that you didn’t hear it. You can’t go back to the way it was before, to a naïve, fingers-in-your-ears ignorance. As the Indian author and human rights activist Arundhati Roy put it, “In the midst of putative peace, you could, like me, be unfortunate enough to stumble on a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable” (Power Politics, p. 7).

 

On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, with this story of Samuel and Eli ringing in my ears, I can’t escape the thought that the past six months have forced us all to see something that we now can’t unsee, and that something is the persistent legacy of racism in our nation. The events of Ferguson, and Staten Island, and Cleveland, and beyond… the deaths of Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and too many other unarmed black men and women… the deaths of police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in New York City, two men of color who also faced racial discrimination… the ongoing protests and demonstrations… the need for the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” because the facts of life in our society don’t indicate that they do…

I can’t unsee the fact that a black boy born in the United States has a life expectancy five years shorter than that of a white boy born at the same time. I can’t unsee the fact that more than four out of ten black children attend high schools that do not offer a full range of science and math courses. I can’t unsee the fact that black men convicted of crimes receive sentences that are 20% longer than those received by white men convicted of the same crimes… I can’t unsee the fact that a police department in Florida uses photographs of the faces of young black men in their community for target practice. I can’t unsee the fact that my friend Marcus has been pulled over for no good reason more times than he can count, and my friend Karina will have to teach her daughter to keep all her receipts so she can prove she wasn’t shoplifting, and my friend Meg will have to explain to her son why he will be stopped and questioned by neighbors who want to know whether he belongs in the mostly-white town where they live.

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable. Or, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

 

Samuel probably wished he had never heard that word from the Lord. Eli probably wished the same thing. Perhaps you wish that recent events had not thrown the issue of race in America into the spotlight. This is not an easy message to hear—that the world as we know it has gone astray from God’s ways of justice. If we hadn’t heard it, we could just go on living our relatively comfortable lives in peace. But once you hear a word from the Lord, you can’t pretend that you didn’t hear it. You can’t go back to the way it was before, to a naïve, fingers-in-your-ears ignorance. Because the story of God’s love and justice demands to be heard, and demands to be told—for it is a story that will not be silenced.

Make no mistake, friends. God is, even now, doing a new thing, a thing that will make both ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. God is, even now, bringing hope where there is oppression, freedom where there is fear, dignity where there is degradation, mercy where there is poverty, friendship where there is hate, streams in the desert and blossoms in the wilderness, the crooked paths straight and the rough places plain, a way out of no way—a new future for us all.

The question is this: will we have the courage of Samuel? Will we tell the story we have heard? Will we speak the word we have received, even if it may not be welcome?

Will we work actively to unmask, dismantle, and eradicate racism in our society and in our own hearts? Will we listen to the stories of our sisters and brothers who have been on the receiving end of discrimination for far too long? Will we who are white willingly give up some of our own privilege so that it might be more equitably distributed? Will we seek to understand and celebrate our diversity and differences, even as we also proclaim our fundamental unity?

To quote Dr. King’s letter again: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [people] willing to be co-workers with God.” It comes through the wisdom of Eli, and the courage of Samuel, and the power of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the tireless efforts of so many of God’s co-workers, joining together to tell the story of God’s unfolding ream of justice and joy.

Don’t you want to be part of that?