We have been following what is called the Narrative Lectionary for the selection of our texts for each week. There are a few reasons for this: 1: There’s only one text, which means we are going to hear stories that we might otherwise skip. 2: It goes in “order” of “timeline,” which means that we get to see the arc of the text and of the people of God. The downside is, we can’t cover the whole Old Testament between September and Christmas, at which time we will be transitioning to the Gospel of John, so we make some huge jumps. This week is one of them.
We left the Israelites 6 weeks post-Egypt and they are already losing faith in Moses and unsure where their next meal is coming from. God gives them food: manna in the morning and quail at night.
Here is what you missed:
They make it Mt Sinai, they receive the law. There are 40 more years of wilderness and in that time they begin to learn what it means to be followers of the God of the ancestors, this God who freed them and is leading them. They receive more rules about how to live in community with each other, who they should care about, how they should care about the vulnerable, what it means to own things.
They enter the land, flowing with milk and honey, livestock and agriculture. These nomadic people begin to settle: they make towns and cities. They plant crops and raise sheep and goats and children. They go from having no land to being in the promised land. They go from having nothing to having abundance. They go from being slaves to being able to do as they pleased.
As they settled, they were more city-states, loosely connected tribes, trying to establish themselves in this world, fending off enemies in battle, learning to be a people of God.
They weren’t always successful.
The refrain over and over again was: There was no king and Israel. and Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. So, again and again, God called Judges to save the people from a warring community or to call them back to what it meant to be a people of God, to care for each other, to look out for each other, to worship God of their forefathers.
The temple did not exist yet. There was a place of worship at Shiloh where the Box that held the commandments, the Arc of the Covenant was housed. A tabernacle. This is the synagogue built in Shilo today, modeled after that ancient tabernacle. There were priests. Tradition tells us they were from the Tribe of Levi. This was a family business. Eli was in charge and his sons were brought up and they… really liked all the bonus that having the position and the power of being the priest brought them. They took the best meats from the sacrifices for their own eating. They took the women who attended at the gates of the place of worship to have sex with, regardless of what was right or what the women wanted. Eli spoke to them, but either they didn’t care, or he hedged, or… or… but they didn’t listen and they didn’t stop.
This is where we meet Samuel. He is a child of promise. Like Sarah and Rachel, his mother Hannah couldn’t get pregnant. Her husband loved her but his other wife mocked her. Hannah promised God that if she could have a son she would give that child back in service to God. And she conceived and birthed Samuel, and when he was a toddler gave him to the Priests, to Eli to raise and to try again.
When we see Samuel again he’s maybe 11 or 12. We find him sleeping in the heart of the tabernacle–near the arc, comfortable with God even if he hasn’t heard God’s voice, isn’t really sure he’s met God yet.
See, God’s voice hasn’t been heard in a while. And Eli, his eyesight had been going and he had lost the vision, too. That is how we end up with the comedy sketch of Samuel jumping up to answer Eli and going back to bed, and jumping up and running back and forth. He didn’t know. This might be good news for us, sometimes we don’t know but when we come together, we are able to discern, and hear and learn together.
God meets Samuel in the small hours of the night when it was still dark but after everyone was asleep. The lamp remained lit overnight. And God tells Samuel what will happen, that Eli and his sons will be removed from their posts and the most dramatic fashion. He’s a child! And he is, in a short time, going to be in an important role in Land. Things are about to change. Samuel is about to take over the work of the tabernacle. The people were clamoring for a king and Samuel would anoint both the first and second kings of Israel. Samuel would lead the community in understanding what it mean to be a people of God instead of just people, living on their own, serving their own wealth and means.
Samuel doesn’t know all of this when he’s 11, but what he does know is that things are about to change, that the world he has known is about to become something different. Imagine what it would have been like if Eli and his sons had died and Samuel hadn’t had this conversation with God? How afraid he might have been? How uncertain of what the next steps were? How he might have wondered if God was even still part of the work they were doing?
I was thinking about changes this week. I have a book group with some women I went to college with and this week I finished the first of four parts for our gathering at the end of the month. It’s a little older, so I think we’re safe from spoilers. The official name is Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, although I heard they might have changed it for the movie. Actually, the point isn’t the story, the point was I was thinking about how much the world has changed in 50 years, and how jarring it would be for someone coming out a place, like a prison, where the changes were slower, and even the changes that come are decades behind the times. I can see how one might be comfortable inside the walls and overwhelmed beyond them.
The way the world has changed might seem overwhelming when looking back, but just you might not notice as we’re just living it. Change is the way the world works through. Seasons change, children grow, we learn, and grow, and grow older. We see the world changing around us there’s more news and it’s not always great.
And the church is changing. mainline churches like ours are kinda, struggling. and Other churches are… kinda struggling for different reasons. And, there’s a whole lot of people who are finding community and hope and love in places that aren’t the church. And every 500 years or so the church goes through what Dr Phyllis Tickle calls a rummage sale, where we get rid of what has become useless, what has become broken, what no longer servers a purpose, what no longer serves God. The last great rummage sale of the church officially started when Martin Luther posted his complaint and planned reform of the Catholic church, in 1517. Now, I studied theology and not math but that’s looking like we’re in the middle of our 500-year mark
The world will change. There will be transitions. We will move from one phase to another and sometimes the last grasps of holding on to what was looks like… many living in the world around us. Fear and anger and gripping to the way things “have always been,” as if the world hasn’t always been about change.
When faced with a changing world, as the world always does, God came to Samuel to let him know, to let him know what was to come, to prepare, to know that God would be present, that God is in the change. There is a comfort in the change when we can fall into the presence of God. Samuel was prepared, we are prepared.
The world is at a pivot point, again. As it had been, as it probably would be again. What we do know is that we do not go into it alone. We do not go into it as people without hope. Socrates wrote that “The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” So we do not have to live in fear of the change, we do not step into change afraid of what’s to come. God called through the prophets, Look! I’m doing a new thing! That is a call about change and in the midst of it God is present, calling to us to live into the future, live into the kin-dom of God that creating, that we are co-creating it together.
And to be honest, I don’t really know what that means. I haven’t met God in the predawn night giving me a rundown of what is to be. But I do think it means God is speaking to us in the voices of each other, in the leaders of the church, in the discernment of community, in the acts of love and justice. We see it in the welcome of God that has always been expanding and inclusive and the welcome of the church expanding to include more and more of God’s people with intention and love. We see it in people living into the fullness of who they are–wholeness and abundance and child of God-ness. We see it in not only the fights for justice but in lives changed, laws changed, communities changed. In taking the first step in faith and hope and belief God is there, meeting us in the at the first step, or taking the step with us, and then the second, and the third, and onward toward the unknown.
So where are you called? How are you hearing God’s call into this world of change? Is it in the voice of a friend, in a dream, on the news with a story you can’t get out of your mind? God doesn’t call us the same way because sometimes we might not see the burning bush and some of us are really deep sleepers, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a call on our lives, it doesn’t mean God isn’t speaking.
The world is changing and God is calling us to embrace it, to recognize God is part of it, that we are part of the changing world. And are called to hope. to act in love, to live in the change, and not be afraid.