Samuel is curled up in the temple, blanketed in the warm glow of the flames still dancing atop of the oil lamp whose quiet light reflected back the shimmer of the gold of the ark of the covenant. Here, in the tabernacle of God, Samuel is surrounded by the familiar lingering sights and smells of daily ritual and worship. These curtain walls held many stories between their folds; stories of his people, stories of God’s faithfulness.
Samuel had been living among these holy things since he was a toddler. As soon as he was weaned, his mother Hannah brought him to the tabernacle to dedicate him to God and turn him over to a life of service under the direction of Eli, the high priest of Shiloh and judge of Israel. Before Samuel was born, Hannah’s womb had been painfully empty. For years she came to this same house of God, longing to be pregnant, weeping in anguish. She prayed fiercely for a child, so fiercely that the high priest accused her of being drunk. When she explained to him that she was praying for a child, Eli blessed her, and soon after she became pregnant. In her years of grief yearning for a baby Hannah had bargained with God – if you give me a child, I will dedicate him to you and a life of service in the temple.
So that is how Samuel, now a tween, came to sleep in the house of God and hear God’s voice calling to him in the night.
This was not an easy time in the history of Israel. Israel was on the verge of a major paradigm shift, socially and politically. Their entire self-understanding and community structure was about to change. It feels right now to me that we in the United States are on the verge of many great shifts, too. And change is scary and destabilizing. Progress often leads to backlash. Many of us find ourselves looking around asking, “What do we do?” feeling helpless and unprepared for the current moment, looking for some kind of direction from God, wondering why God is so silent. In the midst of mass death by pandemic and white nationalist coup attempts, it is easy to relate to the writer of this story who said, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.”
But in this age and every age, God gives God’s people prophets – people who know the heart of God, who pass along God’s words, who tell us the truth, and in some cases, who try to warn us before it is too late. Because prophets often deliver difficult messages, they are not usually popular. It is not uncommon for prophets to be killed.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of those prophets. It might be hard to think of King as “unpopular” now, on a weekend where we are celebrating a national holiday that bears his name. But in the years before he was assassinated, nearly ⅔ of people in the United States disapproved of him. He was pushing too fast, too hard. He was too radical. Many of the same criticisms that people have had of the prophets leading Uprisings for the sake of Black lives this past summer were leveled at MLK too, to discredit him.
And now we as a society have done to King what we have done to many great people of history after their death; domesticated him. The white washed, watered down, tamed version of MLK is the one that lives on in popular imagination rather than the man who courageously pushed presidents towards civil rights legislation, who fearlessly criticized the war, who organized workers to demand better labor conditions.
In the same week that we commemorate the life of MLK, a person who is well known for making our elections freer and fairer by pushing for the Voting Rights Act, there are multiple coup attempts planned by fascist groups throughout all 50 states to undermine our last election, to nullify and overturn the votes of millions, to endanger democracy by silencing the voice of the people. MLK said in 1957 and would remind us now that, “The denial of [the] sacred right [to vote] is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democractic tradition.”
Maybe none of us listening were a part of plans to storm the capitol. Or built the bombs that were planted. Or threatened to lynch duly elected officials. Yet we are all responsible for safeguarding democracy, not only as people who live in the United States, but as baptized people who have promised in our baptismal covenant to “strive for peace and justice in all the world.” Maybe we are not wearing Nazi propaganda and threatening senators. But we, collectively, have allowed that to happen, in large part because we have failed to confront the white nationalist rhetoric all around us.
We are afraid to tell the truth.
When God gave Samuel a message in the night, it was not an easy message to hear. In a time where visions were few, the vision God gave to Samuel was a very bleak picture of Samuel’s caregiver and mentor, Eli, the high priest. This was the man whose blessing led to Samuel’s conception, who had watched over Samuel from the time before he even had memory, who he had spent his daily life with him. God had a message for Samuel about Eli and it wasn’t pretty. And Samuel had to tell him.
Eli’s sin was the sin of many of us. He himself did not participate in acts that oppressed his neighbors and offended God, he wasn’t the one storming the capitol. Eli often did the right thing, actually. Eli’s sin instead, was one of inaction. It was his failure to confront his family members – his sons – who were abusing women and exploiting the poor. In God’s eyes, Eli’s complicity made him guilty, the same way that our complacency in the rise of fascism makes us complicit in its horrors.
Eli was supposed to be a prophet. He was supposed to tell the truth. But like many of us, when it came to the people closest to him, he struggled to hold them accountable.
It’s not as if he never said anything to his greedy, abusive sons. At one point when Samuel was growing up, Eli said to his sons, “Why do you do such wicked things?” But… he didn’t remove his sons from their seats of power, despite their egregious abuse of the people. So his message sounded a lot like a half hearted, “We love you, you are very special to us, go home.”
Samuel, though, was not like Eli. He was brave. He told Eli the hard truth. And it was Samuel’s commitment to telling difficult truths that earned him the trust of all of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba.
We are not all called to be prophets. Being a prophet is a particular gift, given to some of us, not all of us. But although we are not all called to be prophets, we are called to be prophetic. In our own spheres of influence; at the office, the dinner table or at the school board meeting, we are called to tell the truth, to urge people to resist the devil and all of his empty promises of white supremacy, and to lift up the marginalized and oppressed.
Samuel may not have learned how to fulfill his call as a prophet from Eli. But he did learn it somewhere. He learned it from the steady, faithfulness of his prophet mother, Hannah, the sort of woman who wrote a song so powerful that Mary, Mother of God, patterned her famous Magnificat after it.
Hannah sang that through God:
The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces,
while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts,
while the hungry are getting second helpings.
She told us,
God brings poverty and God brings wealth;
God lowers, God also lifts up.
God puts poor people on their feet again;
God rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope,
Restoring dignity and respect to their lives—
a place in the sun!
Samuel was born of a prophet who told the truth. And because of Hannah’s faithfulness, Samuel knew how to be faithful. And Eli? He and his sons died because they chose evil, both actively through Eli’s sons’ abuses of power and passively through Eli’s quiet complacency and inaction.
Naomi Shulman told us, “Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics.’ They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away.”
Beloveds, your witness is powerful. For good or for evil, it makes a difference for the next generation, for the whole nation, for everyone.
Will you use it to call a thing what it is? To fight fascism? To resist white nationalism? To end oppression? To work for peace and justice in all the earth?
If so, you can say to yourself, “I will. And I ask God to help me.”