Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sermon: "Your Servant Is Listening", 1 Samuel 3:10-20 (January 17, 2021)


Today’s reading could be considered the final chapter in a three-part subplot that kicks off Samuel’s career as a prophet. Part two, which immediately precedes this passage, is probably the best known of the three: the boy Samuel hears God’s voice calling to him in the middle of the night, but thinks it’s the voice of his mentor, Eli. It takes the two of them three times before they figure out what’s going on, but once they do, Eli instructs Samuel to respond, “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening”. You’ve probably heard this part of the story before; this is the go-to passage for ordinations and commissioning services.

But this familiar narrative has some very important context surrounding it. At the end of 1 Samuel 2, we meet Eli’s sons, who are also priests like their father. Unlike their father, however, they’re not righteous at all. They’re corrupt and depraved, stealing from the offerings made to the Lord, engaging in immoral behavior in their personal lives, and generally being an embarrassment to their father and an affront to God. Eli chastises them, but his words have no effect, at which point he just seems to kind of give up. THIS is why the Lord calls to Samuel—because the priest and his sons weren’t listening—and THIS is why Eli receives such a harsh prophesy from his protégé in verses 11-19.

While this story may sound like a narrative about God’s call or God’s judgment (and in fact, it’s often presented that way), I think that, in light of its context, this story has more to teach us about listening than anything else. I mean, think about it. The whole problem starts because Eli’s sons refuse to listen to God’s commands, and then refuse to heed their father’s reprimand. Then, in the story’s climax, Samuel’s words reveal him as the protagonist, a foil to the sinful brothers: “Speak; your servant is listening.” Unlike the brothers, he listens to the harsh words that God has for his mentor, and then he lays in silence until morning. He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t contradict. He doesn’t interpret. He sits with the difficult prophesy and wrestles with the words given to him until the time comes for him to deliver them.

The key here, I think, is that Samuel listened with the posture of a servant. His words were, “Speak; your servant is listening,” not “Alright, Big Shot; impress me.” Without having any ideag what God was going to say, Samuel presented himself with a completely open mind, prepared to receive and accept whatever the message was. He began with the assumption that whatever he heard would be worth listening to. I can picture his face growing paler and paler with every word that the Lord spoke. Yet still, he listened.

Now, the story could have easily ended there. “Listen to God, no matter what God says,” is certainly a good lesson for us to learn. But it didn’t. The writer decided to include an account of what happened next (which is our reading for today). And this, I think, is the more important lesson for us in OUR current context. No one would argue about the importance of listening to God with reverence and humility. But at one time or another, we’ve all resisted listening to our fellow human beings with the same mindset. Although we willingly listen to God with the posture of servants, we all too often see our fellow humans as verbal combatants needing to be proven wrong. It doesn’t matter that they may be trying to convey a message from the Lord, or sharing a perspective that we haven’t considered, or simply pouring out emotions that are too painful for them to keep inside. If it’s not something we want to hear, then it’s wrong and needs to be obliterated.

And this is a big problem, because God often uses the words of our fellow human beings to get through to us. Certainly, as Protestant Christians, we believe that, since Christ is the ultimate mediator, we can receive God’s Word directly. But that doesn’t mean that we can easily learn everything we need to know just by looking inside ourselves. We are biased creatures, with limited perspectives. God gives us the gift of community to help us see the world the way that God sees it.

Therefore, when we listen to others, we should always adopt the same attitude with which we listen to God: humility, respect, and with an ear to learning something. The posture of a servant. Through this approach, we can create a path forward that honors each person’s imago dei while pursuing the true righteousness to which God calls each of us. This is the only way that we can open our spirits to that which we cannot hope to understand on our own. That we were never INTENDED to understand on our own.

Eli, the priestly authority, the experienced mentor, the man of God, models this attitude beautifully for all of us. By all rights, he could have dismissed Samuel’s prophesies out of hand. Samuel was a child, and one who couldn’t even recognize God’s voice without help, at that. Eli was the high priest. According to the hierarchy, he shouldn’t have been subject to Samuel’s reprimands. But Eli insisted on hearing everything that Samuel had to say to him, and he accepted it, as difficult as it was to hear. He adopted the posture of a servant when listening to a child under his authority, because he recognized that God speaks through all people.

Friends, this is something we all struggle with regularly. Even though all four gospels recall Jesus saying some version of “Whoever wants to be first shall be servant of all,”[1] we persist in our belief that some people deserve to be ignored because of their position in society. I hear prophets like Greta Thunberg proclaiming that the earth is dying, like Malala Yousafzai declaring that women and girls deserve to be educated, like Emma González pleading for common sense gun reform…and I hear us responding with disdain and dismissal. We call them “brainwashed”, “spoiled brats”, “propogandists”, “shameful”, “traitorous”, “naïve”, “idiots”, “sociopaths”…and that’s just what I found with a quick Google search.[2] These are not the responses of those with a servant mindset. These are the words of those with a superiority complex.

But it’s not just those “below us” that we ignore. Even when it’s our own perceived peers trying to speak to us, we refuse to listen. This Wednesday, as I watched the House proceedings in Washington, D.C., I found myself wanting to hit my head against the wall, tear my hair out, or at least give my computer screen a good shaking. The debate was certainly civil (thankfully uninterrupted by a violent mob this time), but it was in no way productive.

As each Representative took the floor, they reiterated the same old talking points that have been tossed around ad nauseum for weeks. They’d applaud those who parroted a respond that they’d made and roll their eyes at everyone else. It was less informative than it was performative. None of our public servants had any intention of listening with a servant’s heart, because they’d each already decided that they were right. Eli probably would have been appalled by the whole thing.

Today’s political climate would benefit greatly from each of us listening to the other with a servant’s heart, but instead, it illustrates the greatest obstacle standing in our way: our lack of imagination. We’re so full of convictions and confirmation bias that we can’t possibly imagine that anyone with a different viewpoint might have something to offer us. We can’t imagine a situation where we could possibly be wrong. As people of faith, we should have wonderfully agile imaginations: we’re able to imagine an omniscient, omnipotent being, a God who is somehow both three and one simultaneously, a Spirit who is everywhere at once. We confess our sins even when we’re unaware of any, because we can imagine that we might have sinned without realizing it. We can imagine a world where God’s peace reigns and the wolf lies down with the lamb. And yet, we struggle to imagine that our understanding of the world might be mistaken, or at least might not be universal.

Our inability to tell our kindred, “Speak; your servant is listening” stems from this lack of imagination—why would we submit ourselves to an obviously inferior point of view? This was likely the attitude of Eli’s sons, and could have spelled disaster for Eli himself had he adopted it towards Samuel. As a people created out of God’s infinite imagination in God’s very image, I can’t help feeling that this pervasive attitude is a profound failure on our part to live into who we were created to be.

Now, it’s important to note that listening with a servant’s heart doesn’t mean giving all opinions equal standing. God’s morals are immutable and unquestionable. We can’t pretend that a position contrary to God’s Word deserves to be propped up as a valid judgment. But you don’t lose anything by using your imagination to try and understand, and there’s a great deal that could be gained from it. There’s a middle ground between unquestioningly affirming a position and completely rejecting it out of hand; and in that middle ground, we’re called not to speak, but to listen. To only act once we see the full picture.

Samuel could have told God, “You must be mistaken!” Eli could have chastised Samuel, “Who are you to criticize me?” But they didn’t. They imagined that they could be wrong; they adopted an attitude of humility and deference…they listened. And, as Jesus would affirm millennia later, their willingness to put themselves last ensured that they each had an honored place in the household of God.

Whose voice are you dismissing? Whose experience do you deem irrelevant? Who do you, intentionally or not, treat as unworthy of your attention? Who are you incapable of imagining as a messenger of God? Even if the words they speak prove to be false, perhaps there’s something that God wants you to discover “between the lines”. Maybe you need to adopt the humility of a servant in order to receive a deeper truth that’s difficult for you to hear.

Can you do that? Can you allow someone else’s perspective to inhabit your thoughts long enough for God’s Spirit to move through them and illuminate the truth? I hope so. May we all have the openness of Samuel and the humility of Eli. Speak, Lord; your servants are listening. Amen.


[1] Matthew 20:26-27, Mark 9:35, Luke 22:26, John 13:15.


No comments:

Post a Comment