The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on January 17, 2021.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.



May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It’s not always possible, or even necessary, to find a common theme in our lectionary readings, but today there does seem to be a fairly obvious one – both readings are call stories – stories of people who God tasks with a specific role to fulfill. The lectionary is actually going to have us revisit the story of Jesus calling his disciples several more times over the next few months so we’ll get to those, but tonight we’re going to do a deep dive into Samuel’s story.

Samuel’s story begins, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.” (1)

This is a classic Sunday School story. It appears in most children’s bibles and that makes so much sense. Here we have a story about a kid, a kid who learns to listen when God talks to him. It’s a perfect fit, if you only read that part of the story.

Like so many bible stories, we skip over the tricky bits when we tell stories to children and tonight, the lectionary skips them too.

Tonight’s reading tells the story of the first time God spoke to Samuel, but ends right before we learn what God actually said to Samuel. It also doesn’t tell us how it is that Samuel came to be in Eli’s house in the first place.

The book of 1 Samuel is set in a time when the people of Israel are beginning to shift from people governed by judges to people governed by kings. They haven’t had a king yet, Samuel will grow up to be their last judge and will appoint their first king but in tonight’s reading he is still a young boy. Transitions are often difficult especially when you are slowly moving from a system you are not satisfied with to one you have never tried before. This is a time of unrest and uncertainty.

The book begins by telling us about two families. The family of Elkanah, which includes his two wives Peninnah and Hannah, and the family of Eli which includes his two songs Hophni and Phinehas.

Eli and his sons serve as priests in Shiloh where Elkanah and his family regularly go to offer sacrifices to God.

Eli is a complicated figure, but his sons are not.

The Inclusive Bible translation, which I’ll be using this evening, pulls no punches in its description of Eli’s sons: “Eli’s sons were thugs. They had no regard either for YHWH or for the duties of the priests toward the people.” (2:12). Not exactly an ideal description for two priests.

1 Samuel then goes on to explains that when a person sacrificed an animal to God, a portion of that sacrifice was given to the priests. The fat of the animal belonged entirely to God and was burned, then while the remaining meat was boiling, the priest’s attendant could come and jab a fork into the pot and whatever they fished out belonged to the priest.

This is what was supposed to happen, but Eli’s sons would send their attendant out before all of this had occurred and demand the raw meat with the fat still attached. If people refused, they would take it by force.

In doing so, they thought only of their own stomachs, abused their positions of authority to take what did not belong to them, mistreated the people and treated sacrifices to God and by extension God with contempt.

Their contempt also extended to the “women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” who they were known to assault, and to their father Eli whose warnings that they should repent and change their ways were ignored. (22-25)

This is where Hannah and her family have come to worship God. This is where Hannah meets Eli.

The first recorded encounter between Eli and Hannah occurs when she is praying to God in a manner that seems normal enough to me, but was clearly unusual at the time. She’s moving her lips, but she’s not making any noise. Her later description also suggests she may have been quite emotional. This leads Eli to assume she is drunk and to greet her with a lecture.
But Hannah pushes back and says, “Oh no! It isn’t that! I am a woman with a broken heart! I have drunk neither wine nor liquor. But I have been pouring out my heart before YHWH. Don’t judge me a terrible person. I am simply pouring out my feelings of grief and misery. (1:15-16)

I love that Hannah does not crumble when lectured by this priest. I love that she trusts the power of her own relationship with God, her own prayer, her own way of praying.

And Eli believes her, and without even asking her what she has been asking God for he tells her that he hopes God will give her what she wants. (17). Eli doesn’t try to determine if her request is worthy and neither of them suggest that it would be better if Eli, a man and a priest, offered prayers on her behalf.

If Eli had asked, he would have learned that Hannah has been asking God for a son. When the first audience would have heard this story, they would have known that this son will replace Eli’s corrupt sons as leader of the people. Hannah is praying for a son who will be the end of the house of Eli, an end to his sons, their lineage, and their power. A little later, Hannah will sing a beautiful song, a song which we can see echoes of in the Magnificat. A song of praise to a God who is powerful and just. Here’s just a small piece of it:

It is YHWH who both humbles and exalts.
YHWH lifts the weak from the refuse dump
and raises the poor from the cesspool,
to place them among the mighty
and promotes them to seats of honour.” (8)

This description of God is not reflected in the behaviour of God’s priests, Eli’s sons, but they will not be priests for much longer, and Hannah’s son will have a role to play in their demise.

God gives Hannah a child and Hannah keeps the promise she made to God. When Samuel is still very young, she returns to Shiloh and releases Samuel into Eli’s care so that he can be trained into God’s service.

Which is an amazing thing to do. To beg for a child, have him with you for a very short time, and then return him to God.

I don’t want to undercut the difficulty of Hannah’s sacrifice, handing your child into someone else’s care is an incredibly difficult thing to do and even though Hannah has been planning this from the very beginning it still must have broken her heart. But Hannah knows that Samuel needs to be where he can learn how to be a priest and a leader and that is not in Hannah’s own household. In order for Samuel to become all that Hannah dreams for him he needs to be with Eli.

Eli is a complicated figure. If you had seen his son’s behaviour, would you have given your child into his care?

Some theologians want to dismiss Eli as a bumbling old man. Not dangerous, but not someone to admire or emulate. Just, you know, old and therefore unimportant. Others, like Cory Driver will argue that the blame for all of Israel’s problems are to be laid at Eli’s feet. He says, “Eli is a terrible leader. He mistakes Hannah’s silent prayer of deep devotion for drunkenness (1 Samuel 1:13). Nowhere in Scripture is Eli, the leading priestly and prophetic figure of his time, said to hear from God…The worst crime of Eli was that he did not control his sons, who were also his subordinate priests.”

Terrible leader. Doesn’t hear from God. Worst crime. Those are some pretty harsh accusations, and I don’t think they’re fair as we will see as we move deeper into the story.

I’m uncomfortable with any interpretation that suggests that Eli is to be dismissed simply because he is old. That’s smacks of an ageism that I often see reflected in our culture, but not in scripture. I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that Eli is responsible for his adult son’s bad choices. Perhaps, as their priestly superior, upon learning of their behaviour he could have suspended their right to serve as priests, but as a parent, he is not responsible for his adult children’s choices.

Additionally, in tonight’s story, Eli is depicted as a wise and skilled mentor. His life experience is a gift, not a liability.
The last thing that is recorded to have happened before tonight’s reading is that Eli receives a prophecy that his sons will die and that God will replace them with a faithful priest from a different household. (34-35). It doesn’t say, but I suspect that Eli knows this new priest is likely to be Samuel, the young boy who lives with him, who Eli himself is training for the priesthood.

One night, Samuel hears a voice calling to him. Assuming its Eli, Samuel goes to him but Eli says he has not called out and tells Samuel to go back to bed. (4-5) The same thing happens a second time. The third time it happens, Eli realizes that it must be God who is speaking and, as any good mentor should, he tells Samuel what to do. Samuel should go back to bed, but if he hears the voice again he is to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel does what Eli tells him to do. Our reading ends with Samuel, having heard the voice again saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Which is quite a cliffhanger.

But fortunately, we can read further than what the lectionary has set out for us this evening.
God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” (11, NRSV). Not just one ear, both ears. What is God up to?
God tells Samuel that the prophecy that has already been delivered to Eli will come true. His sons will die, his lineage will end, and there is nothing, no sacrifice, no offering, that can change things. (13-14).
God delivers this message and then we are told, “Samuel lay there until morning…” (15) Which is impressive because I think I would be tempted to hide or at least pace the floor. The first time Samuel hears God speak, he hears a message about the destruction of his mentor’s family. A message he is expected to deliver to Eli.

God really didn’t let Samuel ease into his prophetic calling. If Eli becomes angry Samuel stands to lose his home, his livelihood, his relationship with both a mentor and a father figure. That’s a lot to expect of a young boy delivering his first message from God.
But Eli will respond to Samuel in a way that shows that he is in fact a good mentor who we should not dismiss because of his age or his children’s actions. I imagine Eli also lying awake, perhaps hoping for good news, a reversal of the earlier prophecy, but also reminding himself that whatever news God is delivering, it is not Samuel’s fault and he needs to behave appropriately.
Eli makes it as easy as possible for Samuel to deliver this difficult news. Eli calls Samuel saying, “Samuel, my son…” (16) Eli reminds Samuel that he is like a son to him. He listens to all that Samuel has to say and he accepts the truth of God’s message. He does not punish or reject Samuel.
And all that God said will come true. Eli’s sons will die. Samuel will become a leader of the people, trying to keep the people in line with God’s dream for them.
Callie Plunket-Brewton writes, the message Samuel will grow up to proclaim “and the message of his mother, is still, sadly, pertinent. The poor and powerless are still at the mercy of the strong. Human appetite still destroys lives and livelihood. The task of the church is twofold: (1) to cry out against injustice and the abuse of power in the world, and (2) to hear and respond with humility to the message of judgment that challenges our own practices…
She continues – There are many voices competing for our attention and how many of us can say that we really know God well enough to recognize a word as being from God or someone else? There is one thing we can know, however. The overwhelming witness of the prophets is that God has no tolerance for those who prey on the weak, who abuse their power, or who eat their fill while others are hungry. Perhaps the difficulty of this message is how easily it can apply to us. Are we in the position of Eli or, worse, his sons, eating our fill and denying both God and our neighbors their share?”

Although we like to imagine we are Samuel, or Eli, far too often we are more like Eli’s sons and if we don’t admit that, it will be easy to rest in our self-righteousness and assume that the world’s problems are not our problems, not our responsibility. It’s not hard to see our world is rife with problems, will we explain them away as someone else’s fault, someone else’s responsibility?

Or will we choose to seek the guidance of wise mentors who can help show us the way, to learn to tune out the world’s noise and tune in to God’s voice. Will we learn to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” I hope so. I hope we learn to hear clearly what God is saying to us, what God wants us to do, and do just that.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.