The Word of God was Rare: January 14, 2024

February 5, 2024

 1 Samuel 3:1-20                                     Year B, Epiphany 2                                                                 

am sure we all remember 2020 as an incredibly difficult year.  The country shut down in March due to the
COVID epidemic.  Everything was closed
including our churches.  Two months later
George Floyd was killed and that killing was recorded for all to see.  Most of us were still confined to our homes
and it was harder to ignore this death. 
I remember doing my best to avoid the video, but when I finally saw it, it
was impossible to forget. Soon after, people in Richmond Virginia started
protesting and vandalizing confederate monuments.  The church I served was two hours south of
Richmond and it was in our news a great deal. 
I went to speak to a trusted parishioner and she said, “You know our
monument is the only one in Hampton. It’s just a matter of time.”   You see, we had a 16 foot tall confederate
monument in our cemetery. It was a generic soldier and dedicated to all the
confederate dead. I had spent 7 years talking to people here and there about
it, but never talking with the church as a whole.

Before May of 2020 few
in the church saw it as a problem because it was in a cemetery.   However, the church was also in the middle
of the cemetery and that statue was 20 feet away from the church’s
entrance.   I realized that if it was vandalized, it would
make the news and I was going to have to defend that monument or acknowledge
that I found it offensive but had never bothered talking about it with the
people of the church.  So finally…7 years
into my time as rector, I told the vestry that we needed to have this
conversation.  And God bless them, they
agreed.  I would love to tell you that if
they had not supported my decision, I would have moved forward with confidence
and courage, but I am not sure I would have. 
Often our faith pushes us to have difficult conversations.  Often we resist.  What helped me in my last church was other
people who were willing to engage in conversations and encouraged me during the

when we talk about the story of Samuel and Eli, we talk about the call—the
part where God calls and Samuel answers.  
But this is also a story about a willingness to state hard truths and
hear them as well. It’s about difficult conversations. We love to talk about
Samuel hearing the voice of God and running to Eli because he thought it was
Eli who was calling him—which makes sense. If you hear a voice calling you at
night and there is someone close by, it would be natural to assume that the person next door is calling you,
not God.  That said, Samuel lived in the
temple and had lived there for almost his entire life. One would think that if
anyone was prone to identify the voice of God, it would be someone living in
the temple….sleeping right next to the ark of God.  

Yet Samuel was young…no
more than 12.  He probably hadn’t heard
any stories about people hearing God’s voice out loud. What is fascinating is
that his spiritual mentor, a priest and a judge of Israel (someone who should
have been especially in tune to the voice of God) wasn’t able to perceive what
was happening until Samuel woke him up a third time.   It was only then when Eli realized that it
was the Lord calling Samuel and told him exactly how to respond.  I love that it took them both that long
because it’s so true to life.  God often
has to pester us in order for us to listen. 
If it was this hard for two people living in a temple to hear God, it’s
no wonder why it’s difficult for the rest of us. 

However it’s really the
2nd part of the story that interests me the most.  While it was certainly challenging for Samuel
to recognize God’s voice, the hardest part for him was relaying the message God
gave him.  Once God had Samuel’s
attention, he started by saying, “See, I am about to do something in Israel
that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” In other words, I am
about to do something shocking.  God
continued by telling Samuel that he would punish the house of Eli.  God explained that he had already warned Eli
that his sons were blaspheming and behaving in immoral ways, which meant that
he didn’t want them in leadership positions. 
Eli’s role as a leader in Israel was over.

put Samuel in an incredibly awkward position. He had to tell his mentor, the
man who had raised him as a father, that God was going to punish him.  Fortunately Eli was a good and wise servant
of God.  He must have had a hunch what
God told Samuel.  Because as soon as
morning came, Eli asked Samuel (actually, he demanded it) what God had told
him.  Eli demanded that Samuel tell him.  While Samuel was afraid to tell Eli, he told
him everything.  Can you imagine what a
horrible conversation that must have been? “Eli, your sons are horrible
people.  You knew that and did nothing
except give them a little lecture.  Now
God wants to punish you and your whole family.” Yet Eli responded with grace
and faith.  He said, “It is the LORD; let
him do what seems good to him.”  What an
incredibly faithful and humble response.

conversation about the confederate monument ended up taking about 6
months.  It was especially difficult
given that we were in the middle of COVID. 
Several people left the church as soon as we announced that we were
starting a conversation. They didn’t want us to judge the past or those who had
lived in the past.   But the vast
majority of people stayed and in the end, it made the church stronger in that
we proved that we could have hard conversations and come out the other side
still loving one another.  In Paul’s
letter to the Ephesians, Paul implores people to “speak the truth in
love.”  That is what Samuel did for Eli
and that is what we tried to do at my last church. Not everyone received it
that way, but that was the intention.

 During the announcements, you will hear from
Liz Kimball about a research project that began years ago under your former
rector and our social justice and anti-racism committee that focused on Christ’s
Church involvement with slavery. Some of you might wonder why we are talking
about slavery a hundred and fifty years after the institution officially ended.  Isn’t it best to move forward? I believe that
this is part of moving forward.  When Eli
sat and listened to all that Samuel had to say about his family—the sins that
they had committed and Eli’s own complicity with those sins—he responded with
grace and kindness.  He listened to
Samuel and acknowledged all that occurred. 
In doing so, he not only started the process of repentance, he empowered
Samuel in his role as prophet.  It wasn’t
merely and ending for Eli, it was a new beginning for Samuel and the people of

we repent and acknowledge the sins of the past, we are not merely admitting
failure, we are creating a space to begin again.  In seminary, I took a class in the history of
the Episcopal Church.  The professor
explained that the Episcopal Church was one of the few denominations that never
split during the Civil War.  When they had
their General Convention, they simply marked the southern states absent.  Because they never acknowledged the split, it
was much easier to come back together after. 
At the time, the professor presented this as a smart tactic and I agreed
with him. Yet I have come to realize that this hurt the church more than it
helped us. 

In many ways, I don’t
think the Episcopal Church ever recovered from the divisions because we never
talked about what divided us. Often we think that if we don’t discuss the
conflict or the hard thing, we move past it and keep everyone happy.  But I don’t believe that actually keeps
people happy nor is it what we are called to as Christians.  One of the reasons why Jesus was killed is
because he did talk about the difficult things. 
In one of Jesus’ more confounding comments, he said that he came not to
bring peace, but division.  He didn’t
bring division, he exposed division.  But
he did so from a place of love and compassion.

have faith that Christ Church is a community where we can speak and hear the
truth from a place of love and compassion. 
I believe that because you have already been doing that, long before I
arrived.  We are a church that embraces a
revolutionary spirit.  We are a church
that was forged in the midst of conflict—a conflict that led to a new nation.
Challenging conversations offer us an opportunity to build something great and
to do that together. If you are not sure about any of this, that’s ok. My only
request is that you talk to God about it. 
Try the prayer that Samuel used, “Speak now, your servant is listening.”
Then tell me what the voice said, because just as it was thousands of years
ago, the word of God is rare…but it’s a lot less rare when we take the time to

The plaque that covered the confederate battle flag


The compromise