Saturday Night Theologian
18 January 2009

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) (first published 15 January 2006)

Although most locales in the U.S. will have a holiday on Monday, with parades and speeches and other festivities, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday is actually Sunday, 15 January. King was a charismatic leader, able to conjure apt turns of the English language seemingly from thin air. King was an inspirational leader, who deeds as well as his words spurred others to action. King was a committed leader, one who didn't abandon his cause when faced with jail or guns or vicious dogs. In addition to all these characteristics, and most importantly of all, King was a prophet. He was able to discern the voice of God in the midst of turmoil and suffering, and he delivered it to all who would listen, black and white alike. From a Birmingham jail cell, he urged his fellow ministers to come and join him in the struggle for justice, but few of the white clergy would do so. They led worship every Sunday and prayed for God to give them direction, yet they were unaware that they had a prophet in their midst, so they missed the voice of God. Our reading today from 1 Samuel 3 is the passage I chose to do my dissertation on several years ago, so I have much I could say about this chapter (about 358 pages worth, not counting the bibliography!), but I want to focus on just one aspect of the story, God's call to Samuel and Samuel's response. Eli was old and almost blind, in more than one sense of the word. He had very poor eyesight, but his discernment of his sons' behavior was equally inhibited. With Shiloh's erstwhile spiritual leader unable or unwilling to correct the injustice of his sons, God decided to communicate with a different person, a young boy named Samuel. "Samuel! Samuel!" God cried. Thinking it was Eli calling him, the boy ran to his master: "Here I am, for you called me." "I didn't call you," Eli replied. "Go back to sleep." God called again, and again Samuel went to Eli. "I still didn't call you," he said. "Go back and lie down again." When the same thing happened a third time, finally the light began to dawn on Eli. "God must be calling you," he said, and he gave Samuel instructions as to what to say. When God called for the fourth time, Samuel responded, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." In his innocence, Samuel was unaware that God was trying to speak to him. We, too, are often unaware that God is trying to speak to us, but few of us can use innocence as an excuse. Maybe we're like Eli, basically good but blinded to injustice in certain areas of life. Maybe we're like the pastors to whom Martin Luther King addressed his letter, wishing for peace but unwilling to struggle for justice, or even to allow others to struggle for justice with our blessing. Maybe we're like the Christians of that day who attended segregated churches and advocated segregated schools and neighborhoods, believing the lie that "separate" could ever be "equal." I'm not just talking about racial segregation here, especially because most who are likely to read this commentary are of a more progressive bent and are thus overtly opposed to racism. But do we really see all the aspects of racism that continue to affect our society, and perhaps even our own perceptions? When we saw tens of thousands of mostly African-Americans on rooftops or in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, did it strike us as proof that our country is not really color-blind at all, and that injustice and poverty affect minorities in great disproportion to their numbers? Do we recognize political terms like "states' rights" and "no quotas" as code words for discrimination? Do we see that not only blacks, but also Hispanics and Native Americans, among others, continue to suffer injustice in droves? Like many a prophet of old, Martin Luther King spoke words that were hard for his contemporaries to hear, and some opposed him, others ignored him, and a few plotted to kill him--at least one succeeded. But like any true prophet, his message continues to be heard from beyond the grave. Too many people in the world today are completely oblivious to the call of God, either because they're too wrapped up in their own dreams and plans or because the obstacles that they face have stopped their ears. It's not too late to heed the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, or to hear the words of his spiritual successors, who are many. Nor is it too late to speak prophetic words ourselves, if we can only learn to discern God's voice and have the courage to say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

I was told recently that a theologically conservative student at a local college called in to a politically conservative radio show to complain about his school. "Teachers there believe in evolution, not the Bible," he told the talk show host, "so I'm going to transfer to a different school." Several responses come to mind when I hear this story. (1) I think the student will have a hard time finding a school in the area, at least an accredited one, that wants to be identified as anti-scientific. (2) I continue to wonder at the relatively recent link between right-wing theology and right-wing politics; the link postdates World War II, to the McCarthy era. (3) Perhaps most importantly, I think the comments betray a failure to grasp the remarkable chasm between God and humanity. The psalmist of Psalm 139 did not suffer from such a misunderstanding of God. "How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!" Far from thinking that he was capable of saying what God was and was not able to do, the psalmist proclaims his inability to do so. One of the great advancements of the modern era, dating as far back as William of Ockham but coming to full bloom in the Enlightenment, was the separation of theology from science, which was based in turn on the realization that the ways of God are far too complex, intricate, and mysterious for human beings to comprehend. Yes, the Enlightenment has also led many to reject the idea of God altogether, but in some ways the disbelief in God may be a more faithful response to the world we live in than the belief in a feeble caricature of God, one that is circumscribed by human understanding.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 (first published 15 January 2006)

We live in a world that moves fast, sometimes too fast. In the book Blur, authors Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer examine rapid changes in the world of technology--speed, connectivity, and intangibles--that in turn drive rapid changes in the business world. We live in a world of instant coffee, Quicktime, and fast food. Sometimes our lives do seem like a blur, as the title of the book suggests. In opposition to this tendency of the modern world, a group of people across the globe have started something called the Slow Food Movement. The organization's Web site says that the movement, founded in 1986, "is an international organization whose aim is to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and life." It's time to slow down, this group says, taste your food, and enjoy the company of others at a meal. Paul's comments about food might not sit well with this group: "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food." One can hardly argue with this utilitarian logic, but out of context it seems to reduce an important aspect of life to mere bodily necessity. However, the larger context of the passage shows that Paul's interests are far from utilitarian. In contrast to the Slow Food people, who are concerned that people don't take the communal aspects of mealtime with enough seriousness, Paul is concerned about the other extreme, people who focus so much on food and pleasure that they become gluttonous, or drunkards, or they dedicate their lives to pleasure rather than to God. In a way, both Paul and the Slow Food Movement are aiming at the same thing: keeping food and fellowship in the proper perspective, in comparison to the rest of life. "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you," Paul says. The body needs food, and the souls needs fellowship, but the spirit needs God. Whenever we find ourselves moving too fast to slow down and enjoy a meal with family and friends, or too slow to accomplish anything worthwhile, we need to remember that our bodies belong not to us but to God. We should enjoy life, but we should not make enjoyment of life the ultimate goal of life. If our bodies are temples, we are priests serving in those temples, and we need to regulate carefully what happens there.

John 1:43-51 (first published 15 January 2006)

We live in an age of both increased religious fanaticism and corresponding religious indifference. While many people flock to some of the splashiest, often fundamentalist, forms of Christianity, Islam, and other religions, others are abandoning church, mosque, synagogue, and temple in droves. It's not hard to see why. People who take center stage in the world's theater parade their religiosity before others, then order their followers to blow up buildings or drop bombs on other people. In the name of God they advocate murder, justify torture, and discriminate against women and ethnic minorities. They are anti-scientific Luddites, advocating views that betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of the universe. They cling to outmoded, paternalistic models of behavior and social structure. Their words and deeds suggest that their true God is nationalism or factionalism rather than a God who cares for the whole world. They seek entertainment rather than communion with the divine in worship. In the light of these modern perversions, is it any wonder that people in record numbers are leaving organized religion to seek to meet their spiritual needs elsewhere? To speak specifically of Christianity, is there anything good going on in the church today? To quote Philip's words to Nathanael, "Come and see." There are many Christians today who are doing their best to recapture the original spirit of Jesus: his love for others, his compassion, his strength of commitment. They reject sexism, racism, homophobia, and other viewpoints that marginalize people. They believe that God is just as concerned about an old Iraqi woman in a village that is about to be bombed or about a young Sudanese boy whose family has been killed by genocidal maniacs as God is about a middle class American or European or Australian family. They believe in a God whose place is the universe is beautifully illuminated, though not fixed, by the many discoveries of modern science. They believe that it is their duty to work for both local and worldwide justice. They believe that peace is a mandate from God, which we break at peril to our souls. They worship God through music, liturgy, prayer, art, intellectual stimulation, and admiration of nature, yet they realize that the experience of God is not exhausted by their own approach to God. They value the insights of others, even those from quite different religious traditions, or even non-religious traditions, because they believe that all truth is God's truth. They care about the poor, the outcast, the refugee, and the stranger, because they realize that it is only by God's grace that they are not in the other person's shoes. Is anything good going on in the church today? Yes! In many churches around the world, people are catching a new vision of God, and they're engaging the world in new and transforming ways. God is moving among these churches and in the communities where they work. What is God doing there? Come and see!