Sermon Archives

Sunday, January 14, 2018
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
The Reverend Canon Ronald Spann

In today’s lesson from the Hebrew scriptures we hear about the elderly blind priest, Eli, who is mentor to the boy Samuel. According to later Jewish tradition Samuel is 12 years old. But there’s a problem here. The old man has not simply become physically blind but spiritually and morally blind as well. He turns out to be the father of sons who as hereditary priests have basically trashed the integrity of the ministry they shared with their father. That must have been a very mixed message to young Samuel.

Somewhere along the line Eli had simply given into the wantonness of his sons, who were big time perpetrators of greed, sexual harassment and bullying. They were exploiting the privileged role they had in relation to the people, who depended on them in their worship of God at the Temple in Shiloh. Their corrupt leadership was bringing death into the community by killing its morale and vitality.

At the top of the list of priorities for good leadership anywhere is the obligation to interrupt death when and where it is happening, and to put an end to it and its suffocating assault on the life of a community. Good leaders simply do not let death keep going on. Unfortunately, that had become Eli’s tragic failure, and everyone else’s, it would seem.

So it would fall to the boy Samuel to be sent in to do a man’s job. As we heard, even a youngster’s sleep was becoming troubled by the community’s spiritual and moral crisis, but he had no clue to the Divine source and the spiritual urgency of  the unrest that was getting him out of bed to run to his mentor.

Eli finally realized that Samuel had been hearing God’s voice and needed instruction in how to respond. Samuel did as told, so that when once again he heard God’s voice in the darkness, he replied, “Speak, Lord, for your servant listens.”

Indeed, Yahweh spoke. The remainder of the reading, which we have opted not to use for our service today, goes on to spell out just what the Lord had to say. The youngster’s ears tingled at the searing words venting the Divine anger over the abusive negligence that God’s people were having to endure under the priestly leaders.

Samuel was precocious enough to understand the import and likely impact of those words, and was reluctant to lay them on the old man. Samuel could not have seen anything to trust or respect there in Shiloh. Most likely he himself would have been victim of the excesses of Eli’s sons. How could they have stirred anything in him but a wary sense of consequences to come?

Goaded by Eli’s own trembling rebuke to go on and say what the old man intuitively knew he had coming, young Samuel did just that. And by doing so, he both catalyzed his own coming of age, and triggered developments that eventually pushed Israel into the complicated business of becoming a Kingdom that in centuries to come would rise and fall like all other kingdoms and empires of this world.

This passage opens on the observation that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” and that old Eli’s eyesight had dimmed and he could not see. These words were not chosen idly. They are powerful metaphors of vision as a function of leadership. To hear that vision has become scarce and that the eyes of leaders have grown dim is to hear a grim prognosis.

There’s a proverb that you and I both know even if as Episcopalians we don’t know just where it comes from in our scriptures, but by golly, we know it: “Where there is no vision, the people [congregation fills in the blank!] PERISH.” Right! Without a vision of life and relationship that makes our experience coherent, marriages and families can perish. Businesses can perish. Nation states can perish. And let’s go for the homophone: parishes can perish… [By the way, you’ll find this proverb in chapter 19, verse 9, in the book of Proverbs!]

The failure of vision threatens the health of human community at every level, from the intimacy of family life to the vastness of kingdoms and superpowers. My favorite go-to passage about this is Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel about the eye as the lamp of our body:

 “34Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. 35Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. 36If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” [Luke 11:34-36, NRSV]

It’s a word that is meaningful at every level of our experience, individual and collective. It puts a finger on our personal experience and on the experience of community at our very best and our very worst. Leaders are the eye of the body, and their health or unhealthiness has huge consequences in a people’s common life.

But what about little ole you and me? Well, the building blocks of community are its individual members, and if nothing else, we too are leaders in that we have been given our own lives to lead. What is our vision of ourselves and of our own lives?

I don’t know about you, but I know that deep down my soul envisions and thirsts for a life free of fear and double-mindedness, but there are still so many ways that I say no to God, or a yes that I don’t fulfill.

Deep down I want never to forget the truth that St. Paul begs us to remember in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, that you are not your own, that you were bought for a price?”, and yet I still manage to choose trashy, futile and polluting things with which to feed my body, soul and spirit.

Deep down my soul longs to experience not myself but Christ in me living out what it means to be fully human and fully alive, full of grace and wisdom. And yet there are so many times I still shrink from the cost of living into that fullness because I forget the unshakeable love and approval of God who, as today’s psalm says so beautifully, knows me more intimately than I will ever know myself…

Can you like me identify with Nathanael in today’s Gospel? He may have had a little snark in him about what to expect from someone from Nazareth, but Phillip said “Come and see,” Nathanael went! I like to think that something in him wanted to believe, to hope. It’s what our souls are designed to do. Jesus saw him coming, and we know what Nathanael was just about to learn: Jesus loves a moving target.

You and I are moving targets that Jesus has a bead on. He’s more than prepared to empower our belief and help our unbelief with his faithfulness. He wants to set our hearts irreversibly on fire with the vision he told Nathanael to expect to see, “…the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” It’s a vision of our human nature as a vessel where the created energies of the cosmos and the Uncreated Energies of the Divine inextricably combine. How do we see ourselves?

Finally, tomorrow we will observe the 50th anniversary of the last birthday that Martin Luther King, Jr. lived to celebrate. His was an old soul – it is hard to remember that he was just fully 39 years old that day. He was so much younger than many of the political, religious and other leaders around him, to be charged with what had become his prophetic vocation: to confront America with the dimness of its vision, with the truth of its moral and spiritual blindness to the reality of how pervasively death was at work in the tissue of our national life.

By 1968 it had become “incandescently clear” to King that what had begun as a freedom movement in the late 1950’s to “save the soul of America” turned out to be an exploratory surgery that would uncover the metastasis of what King diagnosed as a threefold malignancy of racism, materialism and militarism into every level of our personal and national lives, with blindness as one of its complications.

King invested his last many months in removing the scales from America’s eyes. He moved restlessly among American Indians, Appalachian whites, Latinos and black folks to rally a Poor People’s March on Washington to take the lead in nonviolently disrupting the violence of materialism, racism and militarism and show America a new way to see itself.

That’s the space into which we the Body of Christ have been sent to insert ourselves and show forth the death of Christ. For the joy set before him Jesus did not shrink from demonstrating what it meant to be the Human One and Child of God. Or, as King would challenge one year to the day of his death:

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the [children] of God, and [the family of nations] waits eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full [humans], and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message -- of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.