Scripture Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10
Vision just might be the most valuable commodity in the world today.
Not eyesight-vision, but vision-for-the-future vision
Consider: the outrageous wages paid to CEO’s of major corporations, expecting as it were that their vision will lead them into a future of greater prosperity.
Consider: the turnover rate of leadership in many congregations, as they shop for the vision that will lead them out of the wilderness and into the promised land flowing with milk and honey.
Vision—and the lack thereof—is of vital importance in our text today.
1 Samuel 3 opens by introducing the young Samuel, a priest-in-training under Eli. “And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (v.1).
What does this mean for young Samuel? Demographics are shifting. Traditions lose momentum. Cultural and societal changes shift commitments and expectations.
Does Samuel see himself learning a dying profession? Has he accepted a status quo of “going through the motions” as the ship goes down? What kind of future, if any, does Samuel see?
We expect that Samuel’s seeing is important because his mentor—Eli—has lost his actual eyesight. The blindness that afflicts Eli is clearly of both a physical and spiritual nature.
The setting of this tale is the night, and darkness—inhibiting vision even further—blankets Eli and Samuel as they lay down to bed. Only one flickering light of hope remains: the lamp of God, which has itself almost succumbed to the darkness.
Have you ever noticed how your brain races when you lie in bed at night, staring at the vague gray of the ceiling? It is hard to stop my brain from thinking about my day, the day to come, things that need done, bills that need paid, where I am short, what I could have done better, and how I feel about persons and circumstances. Instead of a time of silence and rest, it frequently leads to inflamed emotions and restlessness.
For many of us, those moments between wakefulness and sleep are the only pause in our day: the only time we are forced to face ourselves, our actions and inactions, our hopes and disappointments, and perhaps even our God.
It has been suggested that a great deal of alcohol abuse in our society takes place so as to shortcut this gray area between wakefulness and sleep. In order to avoid having to look at themselves in the mirror of the darkness of night, many self-medicate to avoid the reflection and self-awareness that comes with pause.
This seems to happen in our spiritual lives as well. Thomas Merton suggests that “most of us avoid silence and the ‘inner self’ because we are unable to face ‘ourselves…[so] we keep running and never stop'” (Kindling Desire, Northcutt, 105).
Constant activity disorients us. Especially us, meaning small churches. We get so busy fulfilling our programmatic commitments that we lose touch with the Divine Mystery. Parker Palmer suggests that “Too many of us spend time doing things for which we have no heartfelt reason” (Active Life, 39).
Sometimes though, our “heartfelt reason” is that we somehow believe we will be saved by our constant activity and overcommitments. We are so ready to do anything that “we move ahead with vision statements and meetings with consultants, or making motions and voting on them; we decide what to do, all without considering where God is calling us to be” (http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/epiphany2ot-2/).
We get focused on the “laborers are few” part without considering whether the harvest we are trying to bring in belongs to the Lord of the Harvest.
There is a mathematical principle known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem, which states that “a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare” (Wikipedia, s.v. “Infinite Monkey Theorem,” 1/12/12).
Unfortunately, many of us have been deceived into thinking that the Christian life and ministry works the same way. We bang away at the keyboard of life, a flurry of activity. But our chances of getting it right are about the same as the monkey’s. It takes Divine insight and direction to discern not just what can be attempted, but how and where God desires us to act.
And this—God’s insight—makes the difference between advancing the Reign of God and soothing our own egos with a sense of accomplishment.
Now I am particularly cautious about scapegoating, but I wonder in our text if there is a connection between lack of vision and the constant activity that characterized Temple life. Did Eli, for instance, learn a priestly trade that centered exclusively on the performance of sacrifice and religious service, thereby pushing reflection and vision to the margins? Do we sacrifice reflection and the pursuit of divine vision on the alter of constant activity, due to the false feeling of accomplishment that activity sometimes provides?
Of course, lest we get carried away too soon, we must read “the rest of the story,” as the late Paul Harvey would say.
Laying in bed…staring into the darkness and himself…Samuel—whose name means “one who hears God”—hears a voice calling his name. Three times he checks on the aged Eli, because (as the text says) “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (v.7).
Third time being the charm, Eli—lacking vision both metaphorically and biologically—experiences a flash of wisdom. Perhaps (I like to believe) he suddenly recalls a time in his distant youth when God whispered his name in the darkness of night. It is God, he realizes, who speaks to Samuel.
And God calls on Samuel once again—inspiring us all to recognize the infinite persistence of God’s love and desire for us—and Samuel responds as Eli instructs: “Speak, for your servant hears” (vv.9-10).
God speaks. Samuel listens.
It is only after hearing that Samuel is able to act in profound ways. Only after listening and discerning to the Divine Voice can Samuel embody God’s desire through action.
Times of reflection provide space for discernment and transformation, while simultaneously driving activity as a response to what one learns of God’s action in us. Living out that activity subsequently demands a return to reflection and prayer in this perpetual cycle of holistic ministry and life.
This cycle of receptivity to God and activity in the world is very much like the rhythm practiced by Jesus himself. As teacher and preacher Kay Northcutt identifies, “Jesus [demonstrated] a balanced pattern of active ministry alternating with receptive prayer, rest—or simply being with God. Jesus alternated between doing for God and being with God, between action…and contemplation, between activity toward God and receptivity of God” (Kindling Desire, 106).
After Jesus heals the man with a withered hand in Luke 6:6-11, he “went out to the mountain to pray and all night he continued in prayer to God” (v.12).
Similarly, Mark 1:21-34 describes a very busy day for the Messiah: casting out demons & unclean spirits, and healing the sick and curing various diseases. The next morning, Jesus retreats to pray: “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (v.35).
After the feeding of the 5000, Luke 9:18 tells us that Jesus retreats with some of the disciples. Immediately after this conversation, an even smaller group accompany Jesus “up on the mountain to pray” (v.28).
And of course we cannot forget Gethsemane, that calm-before-the-storm of the Passion, a time of intense prayer and pursuit of Divine Vision.
Over and over we see Jesus model the intrinsically valuable balance of both spheres of activity and receptivity.
Not long ago, I heard a story that I find inspires this balance.
This anecdote was communicated by local radio personality Peter Segel, though the story was originally told to him more than 10 years ago by his friend, Morgan Ganesse.
When the story happened, Morgan was a dramaturg, which is sort of an editor of plays, someone who works with playwrights.
When Morgan was a young woman and living in NYC, she had trouble finding herself. She came from a difficult background and was very uncertain of herself. For whatever reason, she had become obsessed with Mother Teresa.
For some reason, in her young mind—and this is around 1980-81—Mother Teresa was the epitome of human beings, the best kind of human there was. And Morgan so wanted to be like or with Mother Teresa.
One day she read in the paper that Mother Teresa was coming to NYC—to visit the UN or testify about something or other. Morgan was such a Mother Teresa fan that she found out what hotel Mother Teresa was staying at, and proceeded to stalk Mother Teresa.
So she is there, outside the hotel, watching through binoculars, backseat full of empty coffee cups and fast food bags, and a car pulls up and all these penguin-like nuns get out. And finally, at the back of the line is Mother Teresa.
So Morgan runs up to Mother Teresa, who was an old woman even at that time, and says: “O Mother Teresa, I am so glad to meet you, Mother Teresa. The work you do is so wonderful.”
And Mother Teresa was very nice and took her hand and listened to her. Morgan said: “The work you do is so important and it is so wonderful, and I so much—I want to come to Calcutta and do that work with you because I think it is so wonderful!”
Mother Teresa just shook her head and said, “No, no. You don’t do this work because you think it is good. You do this work because you so love the people of Calcutta that you can’t be away from them. That’s when you come and do this work.”
So Morgan kind of realized she had been busted in a nice way, and kind of nodded and understood.
Then Mother Teresa said, “What do you do?” And Morgan said, “Well, what I do isn’t important. What I do is work in a theater, and I just help put on plays. What use is that?”
Mother Teresa said to Morgan: “There are so many different kinds of famine in this world. In my country there is a famine of the body. In this country there is a famine of the spirit. Stay here and feed your people.” (Transcribed from The Moth Podcast, Dec 5, 2011).
Mother Teresa’s words perfectly encapsulate the Gospel message, and they perfectly encapsulate the challenges we face today. Look around this church. Look at the people who are here. Go out these doors into the community. Talk to people. Prayerfully reflect on who and what you see and who and what you don’t. Love these people so much that you have to do this work.
“There are different kinds of famine in this world.” The mission of this church—the mission of each Christian here—is to feed these people. In order to identify the famine that surrounds us—in order to discern God’s mission for this church, we must not fail to make space for contemplation, for reflection, for receptivity.
We choose our heritage: will we, like Eli, be characterized by restless activity in the shadows as the light of God flickers and dies out? Or are we, like Samuel, willing to face ourselves in the darkness of night as we risk hearing a Voice whisper our name?
There is a famine in the land.
Feed my sheep.
Let us pray:
God of Beginning, Middle, and End,
This weekend we honor one of your saints, Martin King, who looked at this world and shared a dream—your dream—of what can be.
That dream—of little children holding hands—of persons being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin—sounds an awful lot like the Kingdom of God, where “there is not Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free—but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11).
Martin King reminds us today that in the topsy-turvy, inside-out realm of your Kingdom, our dream must be your dream; our vision, your vision; if we aim to fulfill your mission int his community and beyond.
Show us, O Lord, your way. Amen.