Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, January 17, 2021.
In 1967, a year before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published a book with a prescient title, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” In his book, Dr. King argued that abandoning nonviolent social change and replacing it with personal militarism would be immoral and self-defeating. He also criticized American whites for having inaccurate, unrealistic views of the plight of Black Americans.
It was a tense time in American history. The following year, political unrest, violence and rioting in over 100 cities erupted following the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy. Now is another tense moment in our nation’s history as we prepare this week for the inauguration of a new President and the peaceful transfer of power, while 20,000 National Guard members line the streets of our Capitol in a level of unprecedented militarization not seen since the Civil War. This comes after the appalling events of January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, when five people were killed and scores were injured, leading to our President’s second impeachment.
Today, the title from Dr. King’s book is the question in all of our minds – where do we go from here: chaos or community? We must ask ourselves, “How should Christians act in this pivotal time? Fortunately, the Bible offers us clues.
We read this morning about Eli, the high priest of the sanctuary of Shiloh, which housed Israel’s Ark of the Covenant, containing Israel’s sacred laws, the Ten Commandments. Eli oversaw this sacred site that can be likened to our National Capitol.
But Eli was old, and he could not control his own sons – Hophni and Phinehas, whom the Bible calls “scoundrels, who had no regard for the Lord.” (1 Sam. 2:12) They slept around, extorted money and confiscated property.
One day, as Eli sat by the temple door, he saw a woman named Hannah weeping as she fervently prayed. She was distraught because she was childless. After learning of her plight, Eli invoked God to answer her prayer. God heeded Eli’s prayer. When Hannah gave birth to her son, she named him, Samuel, and brought him to the shrine at Shiloh to serve alongside Eli, to fulfil a pledge that she made to God, if she bore a son.
One night as the boy Samuel slept in the room with the Ark, which held Israel’s chief laws, and Eli slept in a nearby room, God called to Samuel in a vision. The Bible tells us that visions from God were rare in those days, but “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” (1 Sam. 3:3) When God called his name, Samuel awoke and ran to Eli thinking that his mentor had summoned him, but Eli told him to go back to sleep. This occurred three times.
Finally, Eli instructed Samuel that if he heard his name called again to reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam. 3:9). When Samuel did this, God revealed to him shocking news that would make the “ears of every one that [heard] it… tingle.” (1 Sam. 3:11) God revealed that Eli’s dynasty would be destroyed and his sons would die.
The next morning, Eli insisted that the frightened boy reveal God’s message. Then Eli listened, accepted the truth, and broadcast God’s judgment against him to all of Israel, noting that Samuel was a truth-teller – an authentic prophet. That took courage, integrity and wisdom. Sometime later, Eli’s sons were killed in a battle. When Eli heard the news, he fell backward off his chair, broke his neck, and died. The vision came true. Meanwhile, Samuel went on to anoint the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David, which changed the course of history.
We can glean many things from this lesson. First, we are living in a time where all of us are having trouble listening. We are bombarded with news and information, but in order to serve God faithfully, we must turn down the static of human voices so that we can clearly hear God speak.
Like Israel, we also need wise leaders, people of integrity, leaders like Eli, to guide us through these turbulent times. Were it not for Eli, Samuel would not have recognized God’s voice. Eli coached Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam. 3:9).
Then Eli accepted the truth that Samuel shared. Every leader must seek to hear the unvarnished truth. Often in the Bible, some bad kings sought to kill the messengers of unwelcomed news. They refused to hear the truth at their own peril. But Eli listened to the proclamation that his family dynasty was coming to end due to their own corruption.
We see in this story that those who fail to lead with integrity are eventually stripped of power. God will not be mocked. And finally we read that all of Israel came to know Samuel as a good and trustworthy leader. Never underestimate what God can do with one trustworthy leader or the damage that one or two people lacking integrity can evoke.
The violent assault on our Capitol on January 6th showed us how so-called “patriots” can quickly transform into barbarians. It revealed that when we place any political leader above our allegiance to God, we risk of becoming Christian nationalists at best and deserting the Gospel.
Today, the world is too dangerous for anything but the truth, too fragile for anything but love. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Christians are called to shoulder God’s yoke, and not the yoke of any political party or leader, but the yoke of God’s unconditional love.
The trademarks of Christian conduct are honesty, integrity, humility, and compassion. All Christian authority derives from these virtues. Eli’s sons used their power for coercion and corruption, which undercut their authority, and God removed them from power. Power is sought, but authority is bestowed, and can be maintained only with integrity.
The theologian Athanasius wrote that “The road to God is in the soul of every human being.” In this season of Epiphany, I urge all of us not to seek our salvation in the trappings of politics but instead to dial down the static of our news feeds and attune our ears to God as we pray the words that Samuel spoke, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Only then can we hear God invite us to the way of love and the vital work of reconciliation. Amen.