Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached Jan. 22, 2009, in Duke Divinity School’s Goodson Chapel.
In Samuel’s day, we are told, the word of the Lord had become rare and visions were few. We are not told why this is so, but we can guess.
In the second chapter of Samuel we find that the sons of Eli the priest -- priests themselves -- took advantage of their religious position by forcing worshippers into relinquishing part of their sacrificial offerings for the sons’ personal benefit. We also discover that the sons of Eli had sexual relations with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. And we learn how Eli, despite the pleas of the people and the warning of a mysterious man of God, did nothing to discipline his sons or correct the injustices they perpetrated. So when the narrator tells us at the outset of the third chapter that the word of the Lord has become rare, it is difficult not to attribute the rarity of God’s word to the disobedience of Israel’s priestly leaders, to the failings of Eli and his sons.
This suspicion is immediately strengthened by our text’s reference to Eli’s failing eyesight. A priest with impaired sight! No wonder visions are rare! How could it be otherwise when Israel’s leadership is ineffective and corrupt? When religious leaders, of all people, are blind to sin, of course the word of the Lord will be rare and visions few. With such a beginning the narrative of 1 Samuel 3 signals to us that the story about to be told, the story of young Samuel who hears God speaking to him in the temple one night, is a story about leadership within God’s people: specifically, about what sort of leadership will be able to prevent God’s word from becoming rare and to preserve God’s holy presence within the community.
The story tells itself, in the way that the most memorable Old Testament narratives do. Samuel is to sleep one night in the room of the temple that housed the ark, that visible symbol of God’s presence. Eli has his own room elsewhere in the temple precincts. But after Samuel lies down, God speaks to him. “Samuel, Samuel!” God calls out. “Here I am!” says Samuel, who then runs, however, to Eli and announces: “Here I am, for you called me.” Understandably, Eli sends the boy away: “But I didn’t call you; get out of here, kid!” Yet the same confusion occurs once more: God calls Samuel; Samuel answers, running to Eli; Eli sends him back to bed.
Perhaps at this point Samuel starts to seem a bit obtuse. Why doesn’t he recognize God’s voice? How can he mistake God’s voice not once, but twice? And, in fact, the narrator feels compelled to explain this curiosity to us: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Samuel is a priest, or at least a priest-in-training, someone who ministers before the Lord, but he does not yet know the Lord. This story “knows” a kind of knowledge of God that is not identical to priestly activity. In this story just because priests are priests doesn’t necessarily mean that they know God or are able to receive God’s word.
Then for the third time God calls Samuel and Samuel runs to Eli. But this time, Eli gets it. “Go, lie down,” he tells the boy, “and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” And when Samuel returns and responds to God with this phrase, the one he has received from Eli, God delivers a word to Samuel about what will come to pass in Israel, a word that is also a message of judgment against Eli and his house for their corruption.
Viewed from one direction, this story suggests that the answer to Israel’s leadership crisis is represented by Samuel -- a young, receptive servant of God, who steps out in faith even though that faith leads him beyond what he has previously experienced. God chooses to speak to this eager apprentice instead of the seasoned priest. From this angle the ideal for religious leadership would appear to be primarily charismatic: what matters is eager receptivity rather than status or experience. Samuel represents Israel’s hope for the future and Eli symbolizes the failures of the past. Oh, if only we all, and especially our pastors, had the receptive heart of young Samuel!
I expect that our story is usually interpreted along just that line. And yet there is another direction from which to read the story as well. Remember, Samuel hears God’s voice, but he does not recognize it on his own and he himself does not know how to respond to it properly. Only when Eli tells him the right words to say can Samuel be in a position to receive God’s oracle. It is Eli who first realizes that God is attempting to speak to the boy, Eli who tells Samuel how to proceed and Eli who responds in pious humility after Samuel later tells him the contents of God’s message: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Certainly, Samuel is celebrated at the conclusion of the chapter as a “trustworthy prophet of the Lord” because Samuel ensures the continued appearance of the Lord at Shiloh. But without Eli’s priestly expertise and long years of personal experience with God, Samuel would not have come to know God and receive God’s word. From this other direction, then, ideal religious leadership is not only a matter of personal receptivity -- a willing heart -- but also about training and discipleship, learned skills and practices, faithfully performed and reliably transmitted from one generation to the next. From this direction Eli, too, makes a positive contribution to Israel’s leadership crisis.
I suspect the story of Samuel in the temple is hardly ever interpreted this way, but Eli’s positive contribution to the narrative is genuine. In fact, only when we combine both interpretive directions does the biblical story yield its fullest truth, for there is a curious paradox at its center: Samuel is the one to whom God chooses to speak, but Samuel does not know what to say; Eli knows what to say, but he is not the one to whom God chooses to speak. In other words, religious leadership ideally combines receptivity and expertise. Both a capacity to hear and knowledge of what to say and do are necessary if God’s word is regularly to be heard and visions to appear abundantly.
For those of you preparing for ministry in these challenging times, know that your ministerial vocation must develop both of these dimensions for you to keep balanced, focused and centered. If one of the dimensions is neglected, the center will not hold. So there will of necessity be a personal, charismatic, spiritual dimension to your ministry. Your personality, your character, your moral sensibility, your spiritual maturity -- these things are not somehow “extra” to your work as a minister but integral to it. In ministry you bring the “whole” of who you are to your interactions with your church members, your sermons, your prayers, your life in the wider community in which you live.
To be an effective minister you cannot keep your own life in reserve, but you commit your life, you give your life, to your people. You will need to be vigilant about your own spiritual practices and spiritual health, just as you will need to monitor your physical and mental health, to ensure that you yourself continue to be receptive to God’s leading. The spiritual vitality of your congregation will not ultimately come from you but from the Holy Spirit -- and yet to be a minister of Jesus Christ is to open yourself spiritually, mentally and physically to be a conduit through which the Holy Spirit may work.
It was the 18th-century New England minister David Brainerd -- at the time still a young student -- who said of one of his seminary professors, “Why, he has about as much of grace as that chair!” Brainerd was expelled from Yale for that remark, but we still understand all too well what he meant. Some ministers seem so worldly. Like Eli, they have made so many compromises in the name of “realism” and the status quo that they cannot remember any other way to live. These are the pastors who talk more about the Superbowl than Scripture, who encourage their parishioners to accommodate to the culture of runaway capitalism with a wink and a nudge: “We can all be good people without having to take church so seriously.” But -- like it or not! -- church is serious; the spiritual aspect of life is decisively real. Samuel shows us that the priestly vocation unavoidably and necessarily involves living an authentic spiritual life before, among and on behalf of our people.
And yet we can all too easily turn the spiritual dimension of our faith into an excuse for inaction or irresponsibility. This is the other side of the matter. I remember getting a phone call from a deacon one Saturday when I was serving a church in Hartford, Conn. “Pastor, the sound system in the sanctuary isn’t working.” “Well,” I said, “what are we going to do about it?” “Pastor, we must pray,” was his response.
Well, yes. And if I had to choose, I would rather have a deacon whose first instinct is to pray -- instead of, say, calling an electrician -- than a deacon always ready to call an electrician but lacking confidence in the power of prayer. Yet the Spirit of God works through us, through our energies and our limbs. We disgrace the Spirit and dishonor the Spirit’s gifts to us if we become passive and without ambition for the gospel. In ministry, and in seminary training, professional standards and communal accountability should not be viewed as counter to the Spirit but rather as part of the Spirit’s work in its fullest sense.
Eli, you’ll recall, was old and corrupt, and yet, even so, he carried with him a precious heritage: the knowledge of what to say and do before the Lord. There is a content to the gospel and a consistency to Christian teaching that spans the ages. To be sure, ministry entails lifelong learning -- this is one of its greatest joys. But ministers are trained in particular skills and practices in the course of their academic and ecclesial formation. They learn the value of earnest labor, honest conversation, kept confidences, communal decision-making; they train in the sacrifice of forgiveness and the artfulness of reconciliation. Without the skills and practices of professional ministry, there will always be a temptation toward inaction and irresponsibility in the job. But the knowledge of the things of God that one gains from Scripture, the history of the church and the accumulated liturgical riches of the Christian tradition stands as a bulwark, a constant protection, for all of us who are clergy. We do not preach ourselves, not even our own existentially rich, hyper self-conscious, endlessly fascinating lives. We instead maintain the patterns of speech and worship that have been entrusted to us, for in these patterns we preserve the primacy of God. “It is the Lord,” we say with Eli, “let him do what seems good to him.”
So for those of you preparing for ministry, this is a joyous text and today is a gratifying day. For you are already engaged in the work of ministry and today you have the opportunity to recommit yourself to that great, good work, even as God extends God’s guidance, comfort, wisdom and mercy all the more firmly and fully to you.
The life of ministry is filled with stern challenges. Many, many times I have prayed about some pastoral situation or other -- usually on the way to church on Sunday morning -- “Oh God, I just don’t know what I should do…so this one’s up to you.” And to my never-ending amazement and gratitude, God stepped in -- and God still steps in. That is the excitement, the adventure, the thrill of ministry. There’s nothing else like it.
So keep before you Samuel and Eli as twin emblems for your developing sense of pastoral identity: spirituality and professionalism, receptivity and expertise, religious authenticity and the tradition.
And then in your congregations the word of God will be heard often -- and as for visions, well…there will be visions galore.