*Sermon of Sunday, June 3, 2018. Something I’ve been wrestling with, what it means to speak as Christians, in an age when our witness has been tarnished and our society needs our voice. With the perspective that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work [II Timothy 3:16-17] -Vinson
I Samuel 3:1-10 (added 11-18) New Revised Standard Version
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
The year after East Timor was recognized as an independent nation, my Marine battalion deployed there. UN troops had previously pushed extremists back across the border and recovery had begun. Our convoy moved through what had been once a lush land. We split up. The other group headed for the mountains to set up medical and dental care, while mine headed to a distant village to reconstruct a school. We passed through village after village with nothing but foundations showing, as everything had been burned. Especially the churches. Mass graves were everywhere… in front of churches, homes, small businesses, or just beside the road. In the days that followed, I noticed really large families—or what looked like large families because so many children had been orphaned. Surviving adult relatives took in nieces, nephews, and young cousins. Elderly people were scarce because they had not been able to run fast enough. Those who appeared old weren’t. The trauma had aged them decades. A quarter of the young nation’s population were dead.
Maybe it was because of the sheer scale of horror, but something that has stuck with me is not only how people and nations will inflict suffering upon others, but that they are just as capable of standing by while it’s happening, in spite of personal aversion.
When we turn to the word of the Lord, the calling of Samuel, in the verses that immediately follow, is painful. Thrust immediately into crisis, we hear these words: “the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,] and he did not restrain them…” the backstory of Eli’s sons can be found in the preceding chapters. Samuel hears this, and that unsettling word, he ”lay there until morning.” I would imagine he was a bit excited that the Lord was seeking him out, only to have this word shared with him about the man who had taken him in. Who would be able to go back to sleep?
Eli comes across as a nice man, but one who just stood by when bad things were going down. But I have yet to find a verse in the Bible that says we are set aside to be nice, but many as to our call to be kind – for kindness is linked to justice. Nice is saying thoughts and prayers while scurrying along the other side of the road while a beaten man lies in a ditch. Kind is tending the man’s wounds and getting him help. That is what Jesus lifted up. So we hear God saying to young Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”
WHY I BRING THIS UP
Did you hear it?
“For the iniquity that he knew…. and (how) he did not restrain them.” How he was aware of what was happening, and yet passive in the face of it.
This is just too much for God. It is not how life is to be organized, certainly not by the religious folk and institution – represented by priests like Eli, who had grown up in it all, but forgotten what it really was about.
This got me to thinking of the renowned Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel. I looked up a speech he gave before our Congress almost twenty years ago. He asked them:
“What is indifference?
Etymologically, the word means “no difference.” A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.
What are its courses and inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one’s sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?”
indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest.
Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction….
In a way, says Wiesel,
to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it.
Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.
Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten… in denying their humanity, we betray our own.
“Indifference, then,” says Weisel, “is not only a sin, it is a punishment.”
Eli had his suspicions as to what the Lord imparted to Samuel in the night. In the morning, it is said that “Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.” Really, who wants to share bad news? The relationship becomes so important sometimes, it can made into a barrier through which truth is not allowed to pass. But, Eli is direct and to the point. His suspicion is confirmed, the secret is out. Samuel shared what Eli had already been told.
It’s interesting to me that Eli’s response is simply: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
No push back, but neither is there a willingness, in spite of the coming punishment, to go ahead and just do the right thing. Weisel is right, indifference “is not only a sin, it is a punishment,” one which Eli will live out, rather than change. It might not have swayed the Lord’s mind, but Eli doesn’t bother to try- doing nothing – out of his misplaced loyalty. There is a lostness in him.
Why does this dusty Biblical history matter, we might ask? Especially now, three millennia later, in a different culture and a nation? I discovered the answer for myself when I was ten, when my Mom explained to me the difference between sins of commission and the sins of omission. Complicated words that she made plain to me. One is the willful act of sin. The other is just standing by and letting sin happen. Mom made it clear, the truth would be revealed and one had best not to to be on the wrong side of truth!
At the time, things were a bit crazy in that small North Carolina town and Mom was trying to unpack for me what Dad was addressing from the pulpit, as he condemned the Klan. Mom, who in her sixties would became a federal women’s prison chaplain, made it clear to me that to stay silent amid the continued mistreatment of blacks during the push for desegregation was to be guilty of the sin of omission. But folks didn’t want to hear it.
Well, segregation is gone, but we still have problems. These days, some seem liberated to be more hateful than ever, a spike in behavior that studies show has increased over the past two years. There is a such a fearfulness of people of color, and we know that fear is the opposite of love, I John 4:18 tells us that, so we know it is a spirit not of God that is at work. Folks are getting fed up enough to protest them, and shine the bright light of truth on things, and yet so many will not see.
We look to the southwest. Families being separated at the border, children sent to shelters that are quickly filling up and soon will be out of capacity, the federal agency in charge of this mess granting itself permission to destroy files containing the whereabouts of children, those who’ve died in custody, and even those who have been sexually assaulted. Funding for legal representation has now cut off, so kids who speak little or no English are supposed to represent themselves – their parents nowhere in sight. Concerns that this vulnerable population may find itself be exploited are growing.
As the author John Pavlovitz wrote this past week: “The fact that (our) children were born here, doesn’t endow them with greater worth or deeper humanity than children who weren’t. It doesn’t make them more deserving of defense or protection or advocacy. It doesn’t make their fear more valid or their wounds more grievous. It doesn’t make their needs more pressing or their disappearance more outrageous. Or at least it shouldn’t.”
This growing form of nationalism “is a terrible disease, because of the way it allows those afflicted to compartmentalize people into (our) own and someone else’s. It is a quickly metastasizing cancer of empathy that destroys (our) ability to care for humanity beyond what (we) believe is (our) responsibility: those close and known.” As Pavlovitz adds, “I feel the need to remind us all—that we who claim Christianity pin our hopes to a dark-skinned, refugee, bastard child, whose birth came in the wake of desperate escape from unthinkable violence. His life began fleeing political tyranny and seeking sanctuary from strangers. Our Christian tradition is one of welcoming the foreigner, of taking in the weary traveler, of defending the orphan; one where every person is equally and fully made in the image of God.”
I think this is why Russ Douthat, in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, argues that our problem isn’t too much religion; nor intolerant secularism – but that whether conservative or liberal, political or pop cultural, traditionally religious or fashionably “spiritual” – Christianity’s place in American life has been increasingly co-opted. Not by atheism, but by heresy. Debased versions of Christian faith that strokes egos, indulges follies, and encourages the worst impulses.
No wonder Douthat wrote just a couple days ago, in an editorial in the New York Times, of the “apocalypse” now rolling across both the religious and political landscapes, with private sins becoming public – as another denomination’s leader was fired for maltreatment of a sexual assault victim and a governor resigned for sexual misconduct and other misdeeds. Scandal upon scandal… even as sins become public, slow rolling across the news without an end in sight, we risk becoming numb. Maybe that was part of Eli’s problem, he just got numb, going through the motions of religion without the introspection and change it beckons. So while as Douthat notes, we are perhaps a long way from any final judgment, there has been “a kind of apocalypse – not (yet) in the ‘world historical calamity’ sense of the word, but in the original Greek meaning: an unveiling, an uncovering, an exposure of truths that had heretofore been hidden.”
What are we to make of all of this?
“If our faith is to ring at all true in these days,” says Pavlovitz, “we need to be the people who have a greater capacity for both love and outrage.”
So I think the question posed to each of us and Christ’s church, amid this age of revelation is simply this: If we know something troubling and even terrible about our leaders, our institutions, and our society – what will we do with this knowledge?
Will we find our voice? Will we be prophetic… in word… in deed?