Sermon for January 15th 2012.
The Revd. J. Michael Povey, at St. Boniface Church, Sarasota FL.
1 Samuel 3: 1-18
As women and men are ordained into various ministries in the Episcopal Church they are required to state that they believe “The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation”.
“The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments”. Not just the New. We need to be reminded of this for a number of reasons.
First, because what we call the Old Testament is in fact the only “bible” which Jesus, the disciples, and the earliest Christians knew. The teachings of Jesus and of the early Church leaders are dependent upon, and arise from, the Old Testament.
Second, because we cannot fully understand the New Testament unless we know the Old.
So much of what we read in the epistles and gospels is rooted in that much older tradition.
Third, because we need to be delivered from the facile argument that the Old Testament God is a God of judgment and the New Testament God is a God of mercy. There is an enormous amount of mercy in the Old Testament. There is more than enough judgment in the New Testament.
Both Testaments affirm that judgment is good, and that judgment is necessary.
In fact we shall never fully comprehend mercy unless we first understand and value judgment.
The bit we read from Samuel is part of a much larger story. It is a story about judgment.
The big story is of a number of small clans or tribes, led by local chiefs (known as “judges”), who are consolidating and enlarging their territory. They are moving towards nationhood and monarchy.
Most of the clans had local shrines, places of sacrifice to God or to the gods. Fertility rituals were practised in many of the shrines.
But the chief shrine was the one in Shiloh. Here rested the great tent, also known as the tabernacle, which had been a portable shrine as the people moved from Egypt to Canaan. In common with many other shrines, there was an exclusive and holy place at its heart. But in this holy place there was no idol, or sacred pole, or totem. Instead there was the ark, a large richly decorated wooden box.
Within the ark (it was alleged) were the tablets of the law, Aaron’s rod which budded, and a piece of manna. This was the shrine of the one true and only God, the Holy One, who had delivered the people from slavery. This was a God who could not be seen, nor should be represented in art or carving. This shrine carried a message: “The Holy One of Israel is with us”.
But shrines have shrine-keepers, and shrine keepers can become corrupt. At the Shiloh shrine it was the sons of the priest Eli, named Hophni and Phineas who were corrupt.
People would bring meat to be offered in sacrifice. It was the rule that the whole piece of meat be offered. Then, whilst it was boiling or roasting, the priests were allowed to insert a three pronged fork, and whatever bit of meat came out on the fork they could use for their own food. But these two scoundrels insisted that the whole piece of meat be given to them before the sacrifice. They would then cut off the uncooked the fat to make the offering, whilst keeping the lean meat for them-selves.
Hophni and Phineas also allowed ritual prostitution at the entrance to the shrine, and availed themselves of the prostitutes.
Their father, Eli the Priest, remonstrated with them, but they would not listen to the voice of their father. Eli did nothing to remedy the situation, even after a nameless man of God warned him that God’s judgment was at hand.
Hophni and Phineas cared more for their own needs than they cared for the worship of God.
In the process, Eli lost his vision. The text says that his eyesight had become dim. It’s a play on words, indicating that Eli had also lost his vision for God’s word and glory.
In the midst of all this, God speaks again, this time not through a man of God, but by a very unlikely source: - Eli’s go-fer, a young acolyte named Samuel. He is entirely reluctant to pass on God’s word, but Eli, perhaps with his last gasp of “vision” instructs the lad that he must speak God’s truth – even though it be a word of judgment.
This part of the saga ends, when in a fit of desperation, and in yet another battle with their coastal enemies the Philistines, the Israelites took the Ark with them into battle - as if it were a totem, a good luck charm. Israel was defeated in this skirmish. Hophni and Phineas were killed in battle. The Philistines captured the ark and took it away. The news reached Eli. He keeled over backwards and died at age 98.
The wife of Phineas was heavy with child. When she heard of the death of her father-in-law and of her husband she gave birth to a son.
Upon hearing of the loss of the ark she named the child Ichabod – which means “the glory has departed from Israel”. Perhaps that was the ultimate judgment - that God’s very presence and glory was withdrawn from Israel.
We shall never fully appreciate mercy unless we first understand and value judgment.
Congregations come under God’s judgment.
We shall be under the judgment of God if we, as a congregation, care for our own needs more than we care for the worship of God, (as did Hophni and Phineas). We must be reminded that the Church was never meant to “meet our needs”. It was meant to remind us is to remind us that the worship of God is paramount.
We shall be under the judgment of God if we, as a congregation, loose our vision, (as did Eli). Myopic self interest destroys congregations, and brings God’s judgment.
The vision is of not caring for our own needs, but of sharing in the work of bringing all things and peoples into reconciliation with God and God’s creation. That’s the vision which will sustain and renew us. If we lose the vision we may lose God.
Athletes value judgement - they call it coaching.
Scientists know that they need judgment –they call it peer review.
Artists and musicians value judgment – they call it “perfecting their works”.
A mature congregation, as is St. Boniface Church at its best, should with fear and trembling look for the judgment of God lest we should arrive here one day to discover that God has gone elsewhere, and we have become St. Ichabod’s Mausoleum.