What? | TRANSITIONS WORSHIP SERIES
It’s what we often say in English, at least in parts of the United States, when we hear or see or feel something that shocks us, or stuns us, or feels unbelievable, or out of place.
“What?” we say.
Then we may say or think, “Did I hear that right?” Or “Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?” Or “This doesn’t feel right.”
It’s perhaps one of the first things we will say when we hear news that means we’re about to enter a period of transition. It’s what the pastor or deacon who gets that call from the district superintendent thinks when he or she sees the number on the screen, or hears the voice at the other end of the call. It’s what the staff-parish chair thinks when the district superintendent notifies her about the date and time for the take-in. It’s what a lot of people may think when news gets out that their pastor or deacon won’t be there after June or maybe sooner.
It’s what loyal employees think when word comes down that their entire division is shutting down and their jobs are gone. It’s what families of members of the military, armed forces, or police, or firefighters think when people dressed in uniform appear at their door with news to share. It’s what parents think when they get a call or email from their child’s college saying their child is failing or in trouble and it’s time to take them home. It’s what we think when something doesn’t feel right—there’s pain, or memory loss, or a sudden lack of coordination—so we go to the doctor for tests. And it may be what we think when the test results are in and the diagnosis comes.
Or, perhaps less dramatically, it’s what we say when we’re asleep, and someone awakens us unexpectedly.
The Hebrew text of our reading this morning does not say Eli said “What?” when Samuel wakened him twice one night, claiming Eli had called him and he was there to do Eli’s bidding.
But I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that’s what he may have been thinking.
“What? No, no, I didn’t call you. Go back to bed.”
And the second time:
“What? Again? No, I told you, I didn’t call you. Go back to bed!”
But the third:
“Oh. I see. Go back to bed. And if he calls you again, say, “Speak, O Lord our God, your servant is listening.”
Samuel spoke as Eli instructed. And it was news from the Lord that would likely make Samuel say, “What?” Eli’s sons had disdained the priesthood, treating it as their privilege to advantage themselves rather than fulfill God’s calling to serve among the people. Eli had failed to rein them in, so his household was done for, and no amount of sacrifices now could repair or atone for the damage that had been done. We don’t know what Samuel said, just that he then lay there in his bed all night long, pondering it, wondering what to do about it.
Often, when this story is told, I find preachers focus on the failings of Eli and the faithfulness of Samuel. The story, as written, certainly supports that kind of focus.
But today, I’d like us to focus on the faithfulness and wisdom of the failed priest. It is Eli, in this story, who ultimately shows us how to handle ourselves in the face of things that make us say, “What?”
Note in verse 5 that Samuel heard the voice of the Lord and assumed it was Eli’s voice. Let that sink in. Though we learn in verse 7 that Samuel had never before heard the word of the Lord come to him, the moment he did, he was sure the voice was of the priest who had taken him in and raised him, the priest whom he accompanied and served in his ministrations to the Lord through sacrifice, prayer, and other forms of ritual. What does this say about how those we raise will hear God’s voice?
And Eli was a failed priest, failed in that he had not successfully led his sons to take up his work after him. But still, when the voice of the Lord came to Samuel, Samuel heard Eli. Eli’s sons wouldn’t listen to their father, much less God. Samuel did. Indeed, Samuel heard God’s voice as Eli’s voice.
We may think Eli was a bit slow about recognizing the voice Samuel was hearing as being the voice of the Lord. But let us not miss that he did notice this. And he did more than notice. He taught Samuel how to respond.
And the next morning, it was Eli who initiated the follow up conversation about what happened. It was Eli who insisted Samuel hold back nothing of what the Lord had told him. And though what Samuel told him, no doubt with some trepidation, was certainly enough to make anyone say, “What?,” Eli’s response showed the way forward. “It is the Lord. Let him do what pleases him” (vs. 18, NRSV).
We may find ourselves facing all sorts of transitions in our lives just now— in our families, in our work, in our schooling, in our congregation, in our denomination, in our community, in our nation, and in our world. I can say there hasn’t been a day go by recently when I haven’t heard some news that made me say, “What?”
But Eli shows us the way to deal with each “What?” It’s to keep listening. It’s to let the “What?” keep coming until we understand where it’s coming from, even if we don’t yet know what it all means. It’s to realize the Lord may be speaking to us or to someone else in the midst of our “What?” And if it’s not to us, directly, it’s to encourage those to whom the Lord is speaking to share what they heard, and not be afraid to share it. And then, it’s to walk into what the Lord is saying, or as we talked about it last week, where the Spirit is leading us as God’s children, trusting, “It is the Lord.”
Somewhere, in every “What?,” or in the places where each “What?” leads, we are hearing from God. The “What?” indicates our initial shock, or fear, or disbelief, or awe in the face of something we sense is changing, transitioning. The “What?” is a gift that catches our attention and causes us, if we pay attention, to seek to learn more, to get greater clarity, even if we fear we won’t like what greater clarity will bring. The “What?” pursued as Eli pursued it, may be the Spirit’s groan from within us, too deep for words, that leads us to cry out “Abba! Father!” And then, then, we can choose, like Eli, to listen, and keep listening some more.
And when we do, we still may not understand, much less like, the “Why?” behind the “What?”, much less what is going to come next.
But we’ll be able to do it, knowing our Lord is in it, and we are in the Lord. Amen.