St. Philip Lutheran Church
17 January 2021 + Epiphany 2B
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
The truth can hurt. We know the feeling. Hearing words we don’t want to hear but very much need to hear for our best interest in the long run: Stay at home, save lives. Online church until further notice. Virtual learning. All phrases that have become a part of our shared vocabulary this past year. They’re not necessarily the easiest truths to digest, but we know the wisdom behind them has our best interests in mind.
Now, we do have to acknowledge that there is danger when so-called “truth” telling is misused. Like the harmful rhetoric leveled against LGBTQIA+ folx, when “speaking the truth in love” is usually coupled with “love the sinner, hate the sin” - and tends to emphasize the “hate” over the “love.” That kind of “truth” telling isn’t truthful or helpful at all.
But what I’m talking about here is the kind of truth telling that is life-giving, speaking a truth that promotes well-being and justice. Today’s reading from 1 Samuel - perhaps one of the best known stories in the whole book - is about that kind of truth telling.
Right off the bat, it begins by naming an uncomfortable reality: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
Which hits a nerve in our own 2020 reality, doesn’t it? (What is this? December 48th?) It’s hard to perceive any visions of “God’s just and loving kingdom” (Debie Thomas) - in the midst of political unrest and chaos and threats of even more violence in D.C. and in all fifty state capitals during this coming week’s inauguration, in a year where racial injustice erupted into nationwide protests over the summer, and of course during this ongoing pandemic as numbers only seem to creep in the wrong direction.
It feels like visions of hope are nowhere to be found. Can anything good come out of our present reality?
The backdrop to 1 Samuel has its own bleak outlook. The vision that comes to Samuel inaugurates his calling as a prophet with challenging words...judgment against Eli and his sons and a coming leadership change in Israel.
Eli had been a woefully inept leader of Israel, who not only neglected his own priestly duties as he grew older, but who even enabled his sons, who were also priests and who abused their positions of power for their own gain at the expense of those under their care. For this “iniquity,” God tells Samuel, God will bring an end to Eli’s harmful leadership.
It’s an uncomfortable message for Eli to hear, but it’s a truth that needs telling if Israel is to have any future. It’s an uncomfortable message for Samuel to speak, too. After all, life in the temple with Eli is the only life and family that Samuel has really ever known.
Can you imagine calling out and challenging someone that close to you or that you depend on so deeply? Samuel is called to speak the hard truth to his mentor. “To name corruption in his own religious home” ... upending the very institution that sustains him. (Debie Thomas)
I can’t help but think of the early history of LGBTQIA+ pastors and deacons in our own church body. In January 1990, when Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson were called as pastors to two congregations in San Francisco, their ordinations had to be done “extraordinarily” - outside the bounds of official church policy. As one person would later reflect, “When people asked by whose authority these pastors were ordained, we talked about borrowing our authority from the future.”
Those invested in the movement for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ folx in the life of the church told a truth that made some uncomfortable, a truth that even got some congregations and ministers expelled from the ELCA. But these leaders knew a different kind of church was possible. They spoke hard truths for the sake of the church they so loved and longed to serve openly as their full selves, even when it meant speaking out against the church.
Samuel may not have fully known what God had in store for him or for his people. He didn’t even fully realize it was God calling him to begin with. But Samuel’s remarkable openness - “Here I am” - trusted in a future he couldn’t yet see or imagine but one that he knew was possible.
Samuel borrowed strength from his mother Hannah, who prayed just one chapter earlier:
My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
The Lord kills and brings to life…
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap.
(1 Samuel 2)
Words reminiscent of another mother’s prayer, who sang of bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, of scattering the arrogant and filling the hungry, whose own openness to God’s plan brought Jesus the Son of God to birth and ushered in the new reality of God’s reign.
Samuel spoke God’s truth for the sake of a future governed by God’s justice and out of God’s deep love for their people, imagining a future so radically different from the reality he was living through.
Can anything good come out of what has felt like a nightmare of a year? Yes. We might not fully know what it looks like any more than Samuel knew what exactly God had in store. We might not be able to fully grasp it any more than Nathanael could fathom anything good coming out of Nazareth.
But the hope that we cling to in this season of Epiphany, “of light and revelation...of searching, discovering, finding, and knowing,” is that God’s grace can break through even the deepest despair and fear. (Debie Thomas)
I’m drawn to the remarkable openness in these texts: The openness of Eli who was courageous enough to get out of the way and realize where he had fallen short. The openness of Samuel who had no idea what he was doing but spoke God’s word even in the midst of his fear. The openness of Philip and Nathanael to move beyond cynicism in order to “come and see.”
It’s a kind of openness that’s willing to name and listen to hard truths and move through the discomfort for the sake of ushering in God’s promised future of hope and love and justice for the whole creation.
The truth is that isolation is hard, but we do it out of love for our neighbor and their health until all can be vaccinated. The truth is that calling out systemic racism and grappling with issues of injustice in our communities is hard, but we do it in order to more fully realize the kind of Beloved Community that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so passionately fought for.
The truth is that a different kind of world is possible. Are we willing to come and see?