The old priest was about done. He’d raised two sons one translation calls “scoundrels.” He’d been–at best–a mediocre priest, once mistaking a woman’s praying for drunkenness. And after the events in today’s story, he’ll lose both his sons and the ark of God in a battle with the Philistines. Later that day, Eli himself will die when he falls over backward from his seat by the side of the gate. The Scriptures tell us that “his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy.” An inauspicious ending for an ineffective priest.
When you hear that part in today’s text about the word of God being rare in those days, you wonder if God had stopped speaking or if the religious leaders, like Eli, had stopped listening. When we read that visions were not widespread, you wonder if God had stopped showing up or if the prophets just ignored God’s appearances. When we’re told that Eli’s eyesight was growing dim so that he could not see, you wonder if, in addition to his physical blindness, he also was becoming spiritually blind.
For whatever reason–spiritual blindness, physical blindness, moral lethargy, maybe cynicism…for whatever reason, Eli was lying down in his room when the boy given to his care and tutelage, Samuel, came running, “Here I am, for you called me.” Maybe Samuel woke him up; maybe the last thing Eli wanted was an interruption. “I didn’t call you, Samuel. Go back to bed.” Perhaps Eli was dozing when Samuel came again: “Here I am for you called me.” This second time Eli shows a little more concern for Samuel–perhaps wondering if the child was hearing things?–this time he says: “I did not call, my son, lie down again.”
We don’t know for sure, the text doesn’t say, but I imagine that second interruption got Eli to thinking…because the third time Samuel comes to Eli, “Here I am for you called me,” this time–finally!–Eli perceives that God is calling Samuel. “Go lie down,” he tells the boy. “And if you’re called again, say, ‘Speak, God, for your servant is listening.’” At that point, God does speak to Samuel. The child receives a disturbing message about Eli’s downfall. After some coaxing, Samuel reveals the message to Eli and at that point begins his career as a prophet of Israel. “As Samuel grew up, God was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of God.”
It’s an astounding story–not so much for telling us about the call of a faithful youth, as for showing us the pivotal role an unfaithful adult played in that call. When you read this story, Samuel’s eagerness to please Eli is striking. Every time he thinks Eli calls, he comes running to do his guardian and mentor’s bidding. Every time Eli tells him to do something, Samuel does it…even to the point of repeating Eli’s words verbatim when God calls that fourth time: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Also striking is just how long it takes Eli to get a clue. God had to call three times before Eli figured out what was going on? He was a priest, for goodness’ sake! Of all people, Eli should have known what was happening to Samuel. But wrapped up in his own stuff–his own failures, his own cynicism—Eli wasn’t paying attention…so it took him 2 times of hitting the snooze button before he truly woke up.
But wake up he did. Eventually. And because he did, Samuel, this eager child who did not yet know God, did get to know God. Because of Eli’s less-than-stellar efforts, the word of God (eventually) was revealed to Samuel and he went on to become a great and trustworthy prophet, one “whose words never fell to the ground.”
Don’t you just want to shake Eli, maybe shout some sense into him? “Come on, Eli! You’ve got a child in your care. Wake up, man! Teach him! Remember your responsibility to care for the next generation. You’ve got work to do. Hop to it!”
But before we go raining down opprobrium onto old Eli’s head, we might do well to look at our own actions toward the children in our care. Last week, we renewed our baptismal vows. We were reminded of God’s love for us. We were challenged to live as if we are loved by God.
In fact, that’s what we do every time we have a baptism here. Here’s the pledge we make to every baptized child and his or her parents: “Do you, who witness and celebrate this sacrament, promise your love, support, and care to the one about to be baptized, as she lives and grows in Christ? If so, respond: We promise our love, support, and care.”
It’s easy to run roughshod over Eli until we remember our baptismal vows and our pledge to the baptized. Like Eli, we too are called to nurture the children in our midst until they are able to hear God’s call in their lives. As a nurturer of children, do you always get it right the first time? Or the second? If you do, let me know. We’re going to sign you up to teach confirmation. Like, for forever.
I don’t know any of us who gets it right every time when it comes to mentoring the children in our midst. In the way we live our lives, do we point children to a life of faith? Do we try to help them discover their spiritual gifts? Do we people of the still-speaking God nurture in our children the ability to listen to God?
And lest you think I’m speaking only to the parents in our midst, I’m not. I’m speaking to every baptized person in the room. Every baptized person in the room has a responsibility for every child or teenager in the room….that’s what our baptismal vows mean. Kind of like a wedding we had here a few years ago. There were tons of kids running around at the rehearsal. I finally had to ask at the end of the evening which kid belonged to which adult. Everyone seemed to be sharing in the parenting tasks…and the children responded to all the adults in similar ways. It was kind of amazing to watch. It takes a village…in action!
If we take our baptisms seriously, that’s exactly what church should be like, too. A visitor to this congregation should have trouble identifying family units…because what they’ll see is all of us are nurturing all our community’s children, training them up in the way they should go.
I know, I know. I can hear the excuses now. “I can’t help nurture these kids into faith…I don’t know the Bible…I don’t pray much. In fact, the only time I use God’s name is in the car during rush hour…and that’s certainly not a habit I want to teach a child. I overeat. I drink too much sometimes. I’m not very patient. I don’t come to church as often as I should. And besides all that, I don’t know what I would say to a child. And I sure don’t know how to talk to teenagers! Is ‘bad’ still good and ‘phat’ still ‘the skinny’? I think I can best nurture the spiritual lives of the children in our midst by staying away from them.”
This is where Eli changes from punching bag to adequate example. Oh, he’s not perfect, not by a long shot. But even in his imperfection, Eli is able to guide Samuel, to nurture him into the place where he is able to hear and claim God’s call on his life.
Perhaps one of the least perfect characters in all of fiction is Howard, narrator of a novel called The Ha-Ha. A mine explosion in Vietnam leaves Howard with a severe head injury–he can neither speak nor read. When his long-time friend, Sylvia, goes into drug rehab, she asks Howard to care for her nine year old son, Ryan. Howard agrees, mostly because he’s not physically able to say no.
When Ryan moves in with Howard and Howard’s three roommates, life in the house changes drastically. Ryan’s presence–though initially disconcerting (astonishingly disconcerting) – eventually catalyzes their non-traditional household into some semblance of a family.
When Sylvia graduates from rehab and takes Ryan back home, Howard comes unglued. He goes crazy…violently crazy. Unable to express his feelings with words, he tries drugs, violence against others, violence against himself. In the end—thankfully–Howard gets it together. He accepts the fact that Ryan needs to be with his mom and he goes on with his life. He’s even able to maintain a relationship with Ryan.
As he reflects on his weeks-long relationship with the boy, Howard wonders if he should pray for Ryan. “I decide to pray something that’s not a prayer so much as an imagined wish,” Howard says. “I wish the first thing that bubbles into my head. I wish for Ryan to be well-loved his entire life. That’s the key to happiness, I think….Then my mind is pulled from my prayer, and I think that for a few weeks he was well-loved by all of us, and we were loved in return.” (322)
If someone as broken as Howard and someone as flawed as Eli can love a child, nurture him, guide him, then maybe we broken, flawed people can, too. Maybe we–Elis all–can pray for the children in our lives to be well-loved their entire lives. Maybe we, too, can help the children in our lives listen to the still-speaking God. As baptized people, what other choice do we have?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015 (2006)
I Samuel 3:1-10
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 the 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 her 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. Therefor 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 you servant is listening.’ I Samuel 3:1-10 (NRSV)