Sermon by Brian Merritt at Come Together (C2G) on 1/18
Text: I Samuel 3:1-20
I am a person of words. Preaching the Word is central to the understanding of my calling. Also, Poetry is my passion, and having studied poetry writing this has made me realize the very importance of words. Like what the poet Karl Shapiro describes in the line of his famous poem Auto Wreck:
Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery
It may take a little to realize that the amazing imagery Shapiro conjures by a juxtaposition of words. Soon we can see an ambulance coming to the scene of an accident. The visceral idea of lights pulsing like blood surging through a body makes clear the danger to more than just vehicles, but to the bodies inside as well. That is the beauty of poetry, that there is so much more that can be revealed in line, meter, rhyme, metaphor, simile and space. There is so much more flexibility in interpretation than merely a rote, literalistic sentence of words on the page.
Yet, there is the danger in poetry to be so intellectual that a poem loses entirely the power to communicate. There are so many times people are turned off from poetry because it is completely inaccessible to anyone who is not a part of an elite circle. I do love this type of poetry as well, but it is like a puzzle whose meaning must be coaxed out by study. At its worst it is completely undecipherable and unsympathetic to it’s audience. It is like the musician who proclaimed, “I suffered for my art, now it is your turn!”
I remember trying to write the latter type of poetry to impress my poetry writing professor at the University of Nebraska. He came to me and asked, “why do you write poetry that is so hard to understand?”
I replied that I wanted to be like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound and use poetry to mine the depth of human understanding and the interiority of human life.
In his kind and gentle way he said, “Brian, have you read their early poems? They mastered a form that was easily accessible before they wrote those harder poems. Why don’t you follow in their footsteps. Master one form before jumping to the next.”
It made so much more sense to master one type of communication before moving to the next that I tried it. I have never moved to that next level of complicated writing though. I am quite content in writing in a way that makes it easy to communicate. Ted Kooser’s advice has helped me in the poetry I still putter with, but it has also migrated to every type of writing I attempt.
Two weeks ago I unpacked my collection of poetry books and put them on an old Sunday School shelf I had dragged into my new offices at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace center. These are my most important books.
Having moved into the center two weeks ago the 38,000 square foot facility has made those who never believed in miracles amongst my ministry claim that it is a miracle. I am hoping that we become a conduit for that elusive, maybe rare, but clear word of God bending us toward justice and then peace in this world. So, you will forgive me if I tend to interpret texts through that poetic light.
This evening when I reflect upon Samuel’s calling I see things in the text that may have been too obscured by well meaning Sunday School teachers, Hymns or the use of this text in the church for people answering the call of leadership. I had assumed the text was a nice story about Samuel’s calling and how this happened. Yet, upon reflection, I can see that this text is about Yahweh’s just Word placed in the center of the community’s worship. It is a prophetic word of punishment against injustice and making right Yahweh’s priests. This story extends further than to Samuel and his calling as a prophet. It goes back to the actions of those who are entrusted with God’s presence in the community’s midst. The text’s prophetic utterances are directed at Eli and his descendants.
Many of us know the story of Samuel’s calling better than the story of Eli’s sons. Samuel’s calling is that as he lay in the room of the Ark of the Covenant (the place that contained Yahweh’s physical presence in the world) he heard a voice calling to him three times. Each time he mistakes it for the elderly and blind priest Eli who tells him he has not called him. Samuel has not yet known the Lord. Eli realizes that this voice is coming from God and tells Samuel to wait and when he hears that voice again calling again to speak. Samuel is to respond saying, “Speak Lord. I am your servant and I am listening to your word.” God communicating to Samuel is where we usually leave the story. A feel good calling story. We can now sing with conviction the hymn, “Here I am Lord…Is it I Lord…I have heard you calling in the night…”
Still, there is more to the Word and the words in this story than a feel good calling. The deeper story here is the prophetic message to the worshipping community communicated through Samuel to Eli at that Sanctuary at Shiloh.
Eli’s sons appear to be at the heart of God’s displeasure. Using their priestly power they have taken the best parts of the sacrifices for their family’s meals and extorted people making those sacrifices. It is also thought that they exploited the serving women for their own sexual gratification. Eli had been warned in prophecies that this was occurring and when Eli confronted his sons they ignored him, growing in evil.
Samuel’s word from the Lord is not one that any of us wants to relay to someone we love. It is a powerful word of Justice from the mouth of a student to their spiritual leader. The message is that because your family has brought injustice into my presence, and have not changed, your lineage will be cursed.
Eli’s acceptance of the Lord’s words is both tragic and telling. “It is the Lord, let God do what seems good to God.”
The community of God, that is us, must practice justice in the midst of it’s own community first. God’s silence is nothing toward the judgment that will come.
We are told that after this declaration that from that point on no words that came from Samuel’s mouth ever fell to the ground unheard again.
What power and responsibility comes with conveying God’s message of justice to the community of faith. These words are clear, unambiguous and terrifying. They could be no other way.
What a clear and terrifying message for todays church. There is a tendency for those who follow the way of Christ to see injustice as something that we seek outside of our relationships, walls and own worship. Yet, the words that do not fall to the ground tonight are that we are deep into it. We are connected to injustice. There is no shirking our responsibility to change or face judgment. It is the clear word.
Just like in poetry we want the ambiguous challenge of the abstract that makes justice as far from our own door as possible. Yet it is facing our own issues of injustice that can move us to the concrete word that will convict, transform and work it’s way from us into the world. It will force us to hear the common invocation from Micah that God requires us to “Do justice” and not see injustices outside our windows to critique them. No, we are definitely in the thick of it. It is truly tragically poetic that we are more often able to see justice as the speck in another’s eye, while holding the gnarly end of the log safely secured in our own.
This is my hope for the ministry that Mercy Junction’s Justice and Peace Center engages. Injustice is not something whose stain we are free. We don’t enter a building and then become free from the sins we perpetuate. Vigilance is our watchword. We must always be working toward the justice and peace that we want practiced in the midst of our own community that we seek in the world.
As I lift up this hopeful word to those who have been laid low for far too long, and a convicting word for those who stand on their shoulders I pray that these changes will always be ones that bend us toward a peace that passes all understanding. We do not attempt to alleviate injustice and sin in our world for our own egos, but for everyone’s betterment, including our own. We do not want to continue in any form of faith that does not bring an equality of the abundant life promised to us by Jesus Christ.