At the end of his watershed Letter from Birmingham City Jail, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes:
If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me.
If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God
to forgive me.
That's how your preacher feels every week, haunted by conscience and other voices for failing to speak the truth, either by exaggerating it, watering it down, or missing it entirely.
I apologize to you, and to God, for any and every time I have failed you, either by troubling you unnecessarily or by failing to trouble you sufficiently; I trust that God will punish me for it.
Thankfully, God has plenty of experience overcoming faithless, incompetent priests.
It is not uncommon for clergy to be wrong, which is why Martin Luther insisted on the primacy of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers—both safeguard against abuses of those of us entrusted with spiritual authority.
When the storyteller says that Eli's eyes had grown dim, he's not just talking about macular degeneration.
Eli had trouble with the truth, which may explain why the word of the LORD was rare in those
days; visions were not widespread.
Eli failed to restrain his sons from stealing the offerings, bullying others with violent threats, and raping women in the narthex; his one slap on the wrist didn't stop them.
Eli did, however, excoriate Samuel's mother Hannah, whose lips were moving silently during
prayer, for making a drunken spectacle of herself.
She had in fact been praying for a son, specifically promising to keep him from drinking in order to dedicate him to the LORD.
But the leader's eyes were dim, and the people were living in dark times.
It happens: to churches, nations, parties, families, organizations of every stripe and size.
The word of the LORD becomes rare, hard to hear in all the noise and violence that rushes in to fill the vacuum.
The people who are supposed to hear it, the ones entrusted with seeing and then speaking the truth—priests and presidents and politicians and pastors—let the people down.
Maybe you've experienced this once upon a time.
It's a terrible place to be, and it doesn't let up right away, and it doesn't last forever.
The truth is tenacious, or to say it another way, God doesn't give up.
God calls Samuel three times before dim Eli realizes who the Voice might be.
God calls a fourth time and saddles poor little Samuel with heavy truth: Eli, who was impeached in chapter two, will be convicted.
The priesthood itself will dissolve; God will speak through prophets instead, and the new line
begins with this little boy lying awake at night, the son of the woman who left him at the temple singing praise to God for breaking the powerful and turning the world around.
If that sounds familiar, maybe it's because you've heard Mary's remix of Hannah's song.
In both versions, a faithful, stigmatized woman saw and celebrated that God would not stand by forever tolerating the abuses of authority.
A prophet will speak truth to power.
Samuel will tell Eli.
Moses will tell Pharaoh.
Martin Luther King Jr. will tell the white moderate clergy.
John and Jesus will tell Herod and Pilate.
And now in our own dark days, our lawmakers and power brokers are hearing it too.
Some respond in defiance; some in relief; still others with the resignation of Eli: It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.
With us, without us, or against us, the truth prevails.
We can argue and point fingers all day, and enjoy the smug satisfaction of being partially
right, because everyone is guilty and complicit in varying degrees.
But we do better to look in the mirror, asking not how we can make others agree with us, but
how we can treat others better, listening more deeply to God's Word and then speaking the truth in love, promoting and living respect, peace, mutuality, accountability, grace, justice, mercy: God's holy balance of truth and love the Bible calls righteousness.
We both do our best and admit that we never fully get there; it is always a goal for all of us.
But it is also a gift, a given, because God keeps coming and turning the world around.
God's grace drives us to repentance, not the other way around.
Angels move up and down on Israel's ladder, and its remix, the Son of Man, because we don't reach heaven; heaven reaches us.
Powers come and go; God comes and stays.
God arrives and stands in Samuel's room and Nathanael's fig orchard and our daily lives
and beside our graves and keeps calling until we finally answer, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.
It often takes us awhile to get there, balking with the knowledge that we or others won't like
everything God has to say.
So the arc of the moral universe is long, Dr. King reminds us, but it bends toward justice.
Whether it perplexes, inspires, or terrifies us, the truth outlasts us.
God will wear us out and wear us down.
Selfishness and other lies will crumble eventually, until even dim eyes see the truth.
God loves us, and others, too much to be without a witness.
It may or may not be your pastor.
It may or may not be your loved one, your candidate, your news outlet, your role model, your
favorite talk show host, or any other face in your world who is both saint and sinner.
It may be an assassinated Black preacher, a child, a woman who looks drunk.
It may be a total stranger from a hick town like Nazareth.
Forget the resume and reputation game of money and power that make our eyes dim; tune your tingling ears instead to what is both true and loving: the divine frequency that
gives and saves life.
The story of Samuel and Eli gives us our lines:
Here I am ...
Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening ...
It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.