Below the sermon audio is the sermon text. Today’s reading from I Samuel 3 describes a faith community that causes people to claim “I’m spiritual but not religious”. What we need reclaim is the powerful message that “I am spiritual… and religious too.”
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday June 3rd 2018
The Reverend Alan Neale; “Institutionally Dysfunctional”
Some months ago a play (Moose Murders) was staged in New York City for the briefest of times. It received brutal reviews as (Brendan Gill of the New Yorker ““this would insult the intelligence of an audience consisting entirely of amoebas.” Dennis Cunningham of CBS advised, “If your name is Arthur Bicknell, change it.” (In one account, a woman leaving the theater shouted to a police officer, “Arrest this play!”).
Our Hebrew lection (I Samuel 3) gives brutal reviews of state of the temple. It describes the very sorry state of the pinnacle of institutional religion (the temple). When the resident priest Eli would retire, resign or die interim priests would be sent in to restore order, health, downright functionality.
The professional priesthood was in the hands of an aged and feeble man who had clearly outstayed his welcome and his usefulness. Assistant priests, Eli’s sons, had run wild and far from their duties; they were often absent from their responsibilities and remiss in fulfilling their obligations. But most wretched, most depressing… the presentation and hearing of God’s word was rare and visions to inspire were infrequent.
The one gleam of hope in this otherwise dejected and depressing context is the young boy Samuel; though a boy he had accepted a call to service, though a boy he was able to resist the temptation to emulate the examples of his so-called “elders and betters.” In the life of many a faith community there are times when the light is almost extinguished but there is always “the young boy Samuel” (a surprising agent) to keep the “lamp of God” alight… and the same often applies to our own spiritual journey.
As I think about the context of our story, I experience fear and hope. I fear that after decades of ordained ministry I might become like Eli; I share this fear with the apostle Paul. Paul asks for prayer lest (I Corinthians 9:27) “after preaching to others I myself should become a castaway”. This is my fear but this also is my hope – that the church will continue to welcome the young voice, the new voice, to speak its message and share its challenge. Who knows what will become, in the hands of the Lord, of the two to be baptized today… Olivia and Poppy?
So, the context of our story. Next, the consequence.
When we place ourselves constantly in spiritual deserts, happily entertain that one day we will pay attention to our spiritual lives, when we play fast and loose with attitudes that encourage a jaded cynicism about the real possibility of hearing, seeing and experiencing the Lord… when we do these things, do not be surprised if magnificent opportunities pass us by. Thus it happened to Eli… satisfied with status quo, inured to sham and pretense, satisfied with mere duty… Eli missed the opportunity to hear and see the Lord.
Eli is nothing if not consistent; as he treats Samuel so he treats Hannah. In the previous chapter we read of a woman called Hannah; she is ridiculed by a close companion, broken by experience of barrenness and discouraged by unanswered prayer…
but then Hannah has a vital and real encounter with the living God but her fervent prayer is considered by Eli to be the ranting of a wild and drunken woman and so he chastises her ““How long are you going to stay drunk? Stop drinking your wine” (I Samuel 1:14).
Sadly, pathetically Eli’s lack of spiritual awareness, his quenching of the Spirit continues as we observe his dealing with Samuel. Twice the young boy rouses the priest and twice the old priest dismisses the boy and scolds him for bringing stories of wild dreams.
Consider the contrast – the old man, steeped in religious custom and practice, blind and deaf (maybe even disinterested) in the lively presence of the Lord and the young man, naïve and untutored in the ways of institutional religion and yet delicately sensitive to the real presence and active call of the Lord.
Whom do I, do you choose to be? Whom do I, do you, reckon ourselves to be right now?
Friends, there is something exciting, affirming, creative, inspiring when we have a sense that our Creator God is now talking to us as individuals… when we have a sense that the images in our minds, even our dreams, are all divine ways to share with us the divine love, the divine will. Maybe, like Samuel, we have suffered, endured the angst of being ignored, belittled even ridiculed when we share (albeit tentatively) a word, a vision from the Lord – but do not let it go, persist. The boy Samuel is there to encourage, the old priest Eli is there to warn.
The Context, the Consequence and… the Conversion.
We come now to the point in the story where there is encouragement and hope; on the third time he is roused, Eli recognizes this glorious and transforming truth… “he perceives”, we are told, that the Lord is calling Samuel. And now Eli experiences a conversion so complete, so utter, so transforming that he not only discerns what is happening but is able to offer Samuel profound words of wisdom, “Next time you hear the call, respond ‘Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.’”
Sometimes we have been so grounded in despair, so influenced by lack of expectancy, so discouraged by others that it takes a second, a third, a fourth or more times to grasp the truth and respond in faith.
Today we call two incredibly young people (babies) by their name… Olivia and Poppy; they are addressed by me and by the church in the Name of God. I believe firmly, resolutely that the Lord who has made them (with help), loves them deeply and will continue to call them throughout their lives. I pray that these two will be encouraged by family, sponsors and others far beyond… that they will meet those who will extend their vision, deepen their experience of God.
And what I pray for them I pray for myself and for you all… that we will be rescued from being blind and deaf like Eli, and that we will grow into being trusting and alert like Samuel. Try his prayer this week each day, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
And conclude with so be it, Amen.