[This Sermon was not delivered, because I wrote it unaware that we would not be using the reading that inspired it, but rather a complementary reading to the others from the Revised Common Lectionary. Still, I think it has some merit, and did not want simply discard it.]
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s reading from the First Book of Samuel is usually a great opportunity for a rallying sermon about God’s call to us. And we may get there yet.
But, I confess, my attention was diverted from the story of the repeated call of God to the young boy Samuel.
Because today, I am drawn to the tragedy interwoven with the call of Samuel, the first of the great prophets.
It’s a tragedy that reminds me of a great moment in The Lion in Winter, the film that pits Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine against Peter O’Toole as Henry II, and Anthony Hopkins (Richard the Lionheart, of course), John Castle as an oilily plotting Geoofrey, and Nigel Terry (A particularly feckless John) against each other and their parents.
Near the end of the film, the young princes have temporarily banded together, under Eleanor’s direction, in an effort to rebel against their father. Henry outwits them, and has them immured in the wine cellar—“the royal boys are aging with the royal port,” he declaims, while he tries to figure out what to do with them.
As they huddle in the darkening cellar, cooperating for the first time in their lives—it takes teamwork to break through a port barrel and jerry-rig a spigot with only a dagger--and John finally shows he’s good for something.
But then they hear footsteps approaching, and fear that their father is approaching, with revenge on his mind.
Richard refuses to be cowed. “He's here,” he says. “He'll get no satisfaction out of me. He isn't going to see me beg.”
Geoffery scornfully answers him, “you chivalric fool... as if the way one fell down mattered.”
Richard replies, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.”
But back to Samuel, who repeatedly hears God’s call, but who repeatedly mistakes that voice for Eli. Eli , is finally instructed by his mentor, Eli the priest to, on hearing the voice Samuel keeps mistaking for Eli’s, to answer simply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel obeys Eli, and when he answers, God says to him:
See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.The next morning, Eli confronts a nervous Samuel, and commands the boy to tell him what the Lord has said.
On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.
For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.
Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.
And, on hearing the doom of his house and family declared, Eli answers simply, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”
When the fall is all there is, it matters.
Now, Eli has already been warned. His two sons have treated the meat offerings of worshippers to the Lord with contempt, the author tells us, by using them as, essentially, their own private source of rich food. And if any worshippers at the temple refused to give them the meat fresh and unburnt, they took it by force.
Eli, who was already old when this took place, remonstrates with his sons, who, predictably, ignore him. A man of God comes and tells Eli that his entire house will soon be punished—that they will all die, except for one survivor, left behind to weep in despair.
So Eli is not surprised.
Yet he continues to serve in the temple, continues to instruct Samuel, who grows into adulthood, and, on the day that the long-ago promised fall takes place, the now blind ninety-eight year old priest Eli topples to his death upon hearing that the Ark of the Covenant has been taken by the Philistines.
In other words, he falls because the most holy relics of God gathered by Moses have been profaned.
He dies for horror and shame that the temple he—unlike his sons—has served faithfully has itself fallen. His death is quick, and seemingly painless, and he dies of his great love for the God who he served to the end, knowing that the fall would come in retribution for his failures as a parent, not as a priest.
When the fall is all there is, it matters.
Eli serves in the temple for an unspecified number of years from his first warning (when Samuel is a very young child) until his death. But we know that Samuel is an adult at the time of Eli’s death, and yet Samuel’s prophecy that Eli’s house was about to fall had not yet occurred.
It’s so easy to view this story through the lens of modern concepts of justice, and come to the conclusion that God punishes His faithful servant for the acts of his sons, that God is cruel to Eli.
But is that really what happens in the story?
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of preaching at this service about Romans chapter 8, where St. Paul tells us that all things intermingle for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose. I reminded you that this saying of St. Paul means that the tragic aspects of life remain tragic, the losses are real, and that pain does not simply cease because we are followers of the Jesus Movement.
Rather, how we, the called, according to God’s purpose, play a part in establishing the pattern of light and dark in our own lives, and those lives we touch. And it is in our response to the call that we get to be active participants in God’s unending, unceasing, untiring efforts to redeem this divided, broken world, which groans in pain.
Told that he and his entire family—except for one broken-hearted survivor—will fall, Eli does not respond with bitterness against either his sons or the young prophet he is rearing up to replace him. He does not abandon the temple, does not, as Job’s wife advises him, “curse God, and die.”
No, Eli answers simply "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."
And he continues his service, educating Samuel, praying, performing his priestly duties, even as time robs him of his sight, his body of its strength, and on the darkest day, when the Israelites are driven before the Philistines, he finally falls, falls and dies, his last thought his grieving the loss of the Ark, that most potent of all symbols of the covenant between the Israelites and God.
He dedicates his long life, every day of it, to a life of service, silently rebuking the crimes of his sons, their faithlessness and their selfish, mercenary ways.
And his days are long in the land.
Eli, complicit in the sins of his sons because he did not prevent them, or restrain them, lives a life of love to the God who he has failed as a father.
But not as a priest. He continues in that role until his body quite simply gives out.
And he atones for his failures as a parent by raising Samuel, whose fame will completely eclipse his own reputation, and who is the first of the line of the great prophets, but who learned how to hear the call from Eli, and learned also from Eli to speak the truth, without fear.
Eli’s response—to not reject the God who has told him that he and his family will not, after all, be the channel of revelation, instead selflessly assists in the education, training and formation of the prophet who will replace him.
And in so doing, a dramatic amount of redemption is achieved. Eli is not forgotten. We can’t forget him—without him, Samuel could not recognize God’s call to his own destiny, and so when we encounter Eli it is in that role—the man who, upon learning that he himself will fall, makes the most of the unknown amount of time he has left. Thousands of years have passed, and we are still reading about Samuel—and we can’t read about Samuel without reading about Eli. His choice helped the light to blaze up, and overcome the darker parts of the pattern of his flawed fallible life.
When the fall is all there is, it matters.
We will each and every one of us fall one day. We’re mortal, and we, like Eli, are flawed and fallible. Our lives are finite, oh, so finite, and like Eli before us, we have no idea when that last fall will come. So, like Eli, we must make a decision.
Not a decision to be free of sin—of failure, or regret. We can’t achieve that.
Not a decision to leave behind us great accomplishments that will fade with the memories of those who knew us, loved us, or not, as the case may be.
No, I can’t help but think that for us here today, a first step in answering the call while recognizing our own weaknesses and failings, is found in the words of Henri Frédéric Amiel, as my own mentor Bill Tully used to quote to us so often:
Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind.
After all, when the fall is all there is, it matters.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.