Note: When I preached on this passage, I realized I hadn’t preached on it since taking “Preaching” in seminary, and I almost quit seminary due to that course. I never titled this sermon, and I can’t think of a title while I post some previous sermons to the archive, so the title has more to do with me than the sermon.
If we just read the 10 verses the lectionary recommends, we get a Sunday School lesson. Now, I usually say something like that when the passage misses something huge, but this passage gets most of the story. Samuel does not know the Lord yet, but he is attentive and ready to fulfill his duty. Eli helps Samuel understand who called him, much the same way he has helped Samuel become the beloved prophet he has already become.
The passage has a strong lesson: listen for when God calls, and willingly do what God calls you to. The passage tells a very relevant passage for literally every moment in human existence, and we should tell it regularly.
The background does not change the message: the message remains “Answer when God calls and do what God says,” but the background makes it stronger and shows consequences of not doing God’s will.
What happens before this shows why God needs Samuel, and why God needs someone other than Eli.
Eli is worthless.
I preached on this passage last in my first Preaching class in seminary. I said something to that effect, and the professor and class responded poorly to it. Their struggle came from me not giving Eli any credit, how Samuel’s coming of age gave pain and sadness to Eli, how God’s message to Samuel felt like a birth pang for Eli, how he grew Samuel and now he painfully gave birth to Samuel’s ministry.
That rings of truth, but incomplete truth. The full story tells it differently: Eli did not control his family, especially his sons, and allowed travesties to happen to those under his care. This painful experience of Samuel coming into authority was precipitated by Eli’s inaction and ineffectiveness, and had he taken a stronger position, one of Eli’s sons would take his place.
Samuel does not become a prophet if Eli does his job.
But Eli did not do his job. In fact, Eli grossly ignored a call I harp on every week: protect and love the vulnerable.
Eli’s sons are evil. Wicked, despicable scoundrels, according to scripture, depending on how you translate the word.
They first abuse their power by forcing people to give the best of their sacrifices, a large, uncooked portion with fat instead of the portion of the boiled meal they should. I think about this, and immediately I think about the number of people who came through that had spent every spare coin they had to purchase this meat for sacrifice. Eli’s sons not only took from God, which sounds pretty darned awful in and of itself, and took from people who had to spare, but they took from every person who came to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice, including those who had nothing to spare. The priests, those called to a live of servitude and humility, demanded the finest cuts for their own use.
It can get worse, though. They also had sex with the servant girls at the city gates. These are servant girls who certainly cannot say no to the powerful priests serving Shiloh. Scripture does not tell us if they did this by physical force or through coercion or through taking advantage of vulnerabilities–probably because it does not matter. No matter how they did it, they sexually took advantage of the women at the gate.
The sons are evil, and Eli does nothing.
Well, Eli does something. He basically says, “You boys stop it!” and then does nothing. His words have no teeth, he will not actually make them stop taking advantage of the vulnerable. Under his watch, people who cannot resist suffer abuses at the hands of his sons.
This goes beyond just not being able to control his sons. All parents have times when their children do terrible things. We do not blame the parent for the sins of the child unless you can see that no actions were taken to correct what was happening. Eli’s sons did not just start raping and stealing. They did not go from perfectly mediocre priests to evil men. They had to progress from one sin to a more painful sin to a more painful sin to get to the point they arrive at when Samuel is called by God.
And Eli effectively did nothing. Eli is worthless to protect and help the people of Israel, especially the poor and vulnerable who could not help themselves. This swan song comes not just because Eli painfully gives birth to Samuel’s ministry, but because Eli fail and his failure caused abuses of the vulnerable.
It sounds familiar. Listen to the cries of the vulnerable around you today. We are coming up on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and racial tensions have grown in recent years instead of declining. The church has a call to protect the vulnerable yet stories come out regularly about people in about abusing those God called them to protect. The poor, the vulnerable, the “less than” are currently, today, right now, being abused.
We can be Samuel, answering the call of God, listening to the cries of God’s people, and reacting. God has called us to protect the weak and vulnerable, the feed the poor, to live out what Christ lived out while he walked the Earth despite his own poverty. We can do good in the world and actually act to prevent evil in the world.
Or we can be Eli. We can have good intentions, say, “Don’t do that!” and do nothing more. We can allow abuses to take place under our watch, speaking the right words but taking no action, doing nothing to actually protect the vulnerable.
We can do either. God calls us to one, but Eli clearly chose the other.
Now, we may not fully recognize God’s call at first. Samuel needed guidance and did not recognize God’s voice at first. But once he listened for God, he did what God needed and helped the weak and the vulnerable.
We can listen for God and help the vulnerable, or we can do what we have always done, not listening for God’s direction, and just let darkness win.
I recommend we listen for God. Amen.