Monday, January 26, 2009

Hearing the Vision

Sermon for Little Tew, 18 January, 2009

[NB: I Samuel 3:1-9 is much clearer when read aloud from KJV. Modern translations—especially in this case—miss the interwoven themes, the layers and nuances.]

The story of Samuel runs a gamut of emotions.

The account of his conception, told in the first chapter of this book, is one of comedy and outrage. There is the fertile wife, Penninah, who, jealous that their shared husband loves Hannah best, taunts her year after year for her barrenness. There is Eli the priest's contempt for Hannah evidenced by his jumping to the conclusion that she is drunk when she pours out her heart before the Lord, begging for a child. In spite of all this persecution she does conceive, and so great is her joy and gratitude that she gives the child back to God to serve in the temple, accompanied by an abundance of other offerings. And finally there is the poignant scene between Eli and the child, Samuel, who bears a terrible prophecy to the old man who has been his mentor.

Among the inter-related themes in these early chapters of I Samuel is a commentary on what constitutes faith and faithfulness—the singleness of a heart that is empty before and receptive to God, the fecundity of interior virginity—that prepares us for the vision of God. We are made aware of these issues through the sharply drawn contrast between Eli, the priest, and his sons, and Samuel, the child oblate who will eventually take his place.

In chapter 2, comments about the goodness of Samuel and Hannah and a prophecy that Samuel will know the Lord's heart and mind are interwoven with the story of the crimes of Eli's sons and the prophecies against them. The sons' rapine knowledge of the women who come to the temple to pray is set against Samuel's growing into the knowledge of God in his heart. This opposition is an element of the sexual metaphor threading through these chapters, introduced in chapter 1 by Peninnah's mockery of Hannah.

In ancient times Jewish priesthood was hereditary. We are told that Eli's line goes all the way back to Israel's bondage in Egypt. But Eli has been weak and ineffective; he has failed to control his two sons, who not only are debauched but, far worse, hold God, and those who make offerings to God, in contempt. Their contempt for God echoes Eli's initial contempt for Hannah. So while our hearts may hurt at the exchanges between Eli, Samuel, and God, we cannot say that God is holding an innocent man responsible for his sons' sins. The father and the sons represent the dead end of a degenerate clerical process that has been at work for generations.

The consequence of clerical failure is brought to the fore in the opening lines of today's readings from chapter 3. In the first verse we are told that visions sent from God are few and far between. There is an echo here of the Book of Proverbs: "Where vision fails, the people perish." (Prov. 29:18) It isn't so much that God is not sending visions; it is rather that there are few people who are willing to dispose themselves to receive them, to know God's heart and mind. (I Sam. 2:35)

Temples are the work of men, not God, places busy with the domestication of the divine. To lay aside one's bustling self-importance, to find the time to wait on an undomesticated God in attentive and receptive silence can be hard work for a temple priest.

In the second verse of today's readings, we are told that Eli is going blind, a symbolic manifestation, perhaps, of the skewed nature of his priorities. It is a phrase that works both as a traditional Hebrew parallelism and an enlarging of the metaphor that ultimately shows us that what is meant by vision is obedient listening. Fortunately, God's revelation is not dependent on man-made temples or the clergy; the end of Eli's line does not mean the end of visions from God. Verse 3 tells us that the lamp of God has not yet gone out.

It is still burning even if Eli can't see it; he may fail, but it will never fail. The light of God is about to become manifest in the child Samuel, who is sleeping in the inner chamber with the Ark, a location that could be construed as a metaphor for Samuel's listening heart and his spiritual closeness to God.

But Samuel is as yet innocent of direct dealings with the Lord; until this moment he has never "known" the Lord, to use the verb indicative of God's spousal intimacy with the people. That is to say, Samuel has not yet heard the still small voice in the most intimate place of the heart. Knowledge of God will increase his single-hearted dedication and thus his virginity, in the Jewish understanding of that word.

The sexual resonances are picked up again later on in verse 19 when we are told that as a mature prophet Samuel never let his words fall to the ground; that is to say that he has become aware of the potent nature of words he receives in his heart; he knows that they must be used appropriately and with restraint, never wasted on trivial matters. He never allows his intimacy with God to be interrupted; he never allows his attention be distracted; he never uses his privilege as an excuse for material entitlement, as have Eli and his sons.

When God first speaks to Samuel we are made understand that "the vision" of God is a kind of deep listening. The root of the word "to listen" in Hebrew also has the nuance of obedience: so when Samuel first hears God's voice, he runs to Eli. This pattern is repeated twice more until Eli realizes that God is speaking to Samuel. Eli then relinquishes him to God. By this submission, and by his humble acquiescence to the terrible prophecy that will be given, Eli goes a long way to recover his own lost virginity.

Obedient to Eli's instruction, Samuel returns to the heart of the temple and opens himself to be impregnated by God's word and to repeat it faithfully, however difficult that may be. In the morning he emerges from the heart of God to open the temple doors from the inside.

A new era has begun in the history of the Jewish people. Samuel can offer hope to the people where Eli has failed, precisely because Samuel is not part of the temple priesthood. Centuries later the same will be true of Jesus, who can be the great high priest, the Christ, only because he, too, is not part of the temple system.

There is some debate about Samuel's name: it is often translated as "heard of God", for he was conceived after God heard Hannah's cries. Other translations suggest "hearer" or even "son" of El, or God. Samuel's name is linked to that most important of Jewish prayers, known by its first word as the Shema. It has the same root as Samuel's name: to listen and obey. "Hear, O Israel!"

God wants the whole attention of the people—hard enough for a prophet, but even harder for a nation. God wants a virgin people, that is to say, one that has an undivided heart as regards God. Sadly, God is to be disappointed: material sacrifices and idols, the pomp, intrigues and power struggles of hierarchy, are so much more entertaining. Worst of all, the people ask Samuel to anoint a king for them as a point of focus to replace the diffuse system of judges. Their lack of faith will lead to their destruction.

Perhaps the author is implying that Samuel personifies what Israel was invited to be but has failed to become. Samuel was born because God heard Hannah, whose faith made her receptive to God's word, and Samuel has continued her example of single-hearted faithfulness, receptivity and generosity. These events raise echoes of Isaiah 55:11: "... so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." Perhaps there is even a gesture towards the Garden of Eden in this story, a reversal of Adam's rib, and a rejection of distraction.

The end of Eli's line and the emergence of Hannah's are also echoed in Isaiah: "for my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
 so are my ways higher than your ways
 and my thoughts than your thoughts." [Is. 55: 8-9]

The link between single-heartedness and virginity is a very ancient one. Only virginity is fertile: the empty ear, the ready womb, the attending mind, the listening heart—these vessels of silence alone can give rise to something new. Virginity is something we grow into; our growth in aspiration and vision are reciprocal with learning to focus our selves, our souls and bodies, in faith. By learning to do this, we draw our lives increasingly from the wellspring of divine silence instead of the poisonous and noisy waters of modern consumer culture, a culture that fragments life—including our notion of virginity—into a sequence of commodities and negative aspiration, leading to despair.

It's appropriate that we have this story of Samuel at this season. However bleak we may feel, however uncertain about the new era in which we find ourselves, Epiphany reminds us that Christ offers us the same intimacy to know God's heart and mind as Samuel was given; the lamp God will not go out. It still burns in the silent listening and receptivity that open us to limitless horizons in every aspect of our lives. Light continues to emerge from the darkness; the silent Word still speaks to those who are quiet enough to receive it; the manifestation of transfiguration—in every sense—is available without price to anyone who is willing to do the work of silence, to be reborn in simplicity, to be "heard of God" or "hearers of God". We need only to empty our selves of excess and distraction by offering what seems to be our barrenness in listening hope.

Which is not a vain hope, for as the antiphon on the Magnificat for second Vespers of Christmas reminds us: "When all things were in quiet silence, and the night in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word leapt down out of the heavens, Alleluia."


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