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I have noticed over the years that when I look at passages of scripture I tend to look for confirmation of what I already know about God. When I was growing up the only thing I remember learning was that God loves me so when I look at a passage of scripture, either from the New Testament or from the Hebrew scriptures, I look for confirmation of that fact. There are of course many issues with that, one being that it limits God and oversimplifies all that God is and all that God represents. It places God in a tiny, tiny box labeled “For Emergency use only” and implies that we only need to pay attention to God when we are feeling hurt or disappointed. Additionally, by only looking for confirmation of God’s love in scripture we can very easily ignore anything that sounds contrary to what we know, for example today we heard that Eli’s family was going to be punished because of the actions of his sons; we heard about the sin of fornication; and we heard Nathanael make a fairly elitist and possibly racist and/or bigoted comment when he said “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”. These themes and ideas are not the ones that we put in our little box because they don’t jive with our simplified view of God; but by doing that we are denying ourselves the fullness of God, we are denying the reasons we need to rely on God for everything in our lives.
The message to Samuel that Eli’s sons have caused the punishment of Eli’s house is certainly contrary to the God we know in the Gospels; which is why we would not put that message in our little box. However, it is important to remember that it is humans that wrote these words, not God, and that the purpose of writing down these words is to capture the complexity of the relationship between God and humanity. So the author of the 1st book of Samuel is doing two things with this particular passage, first they are reminding us that our thoughts and actions should be focused on God, otherwise we will find ourselves in bad situations, which is what is happening to Eli’s family. His family’s downfall has nothing to do with God, it has to do with the fact that Eli’s sons ignore gods law. Secondly, the author is foreshadowing what we will hear in the rest of the book of Samuel. Samuel was a prophet in the time of the kings and much of what he has to say about society at the time settles on the idea that the kings are greedy, self-centered, power hungry people who have little desire to actually be in relationship with God and they are leading their people down the same path. We tend to focus on Samuel in this story because he answers God’s call, but his call story would not be as powerful without the story of Eli’s family attached to it because it is through that part of the story that we are reminded that even when we spend our lives dedicated to God’s service, as Eli has, we can still fall short; but God will not punish us, the only punishment we will receive is our own guilt.
In his 1st letter to the Corinthians Paul chastises the people for their sin. He is reminding them that as a part of the body of Christ, meaning the church, their behavior reflects on and affects the entire church. The discussions of prostitution and fornication should be seen as a metaphor for sin in general. Sin is what separates us from God, in this particular passage Paul is warning us that if one part of the church sins that can affect the rest of the community, so it is important to remember that God is with you and that if you rely on God you can avoid sin.
John is telling us that Nathanael does not think very highly of people of Nazareth, but by the end he is a believer. Why might John have Nathanael say such a thing? Well we typically focus on Philip in this story because he seems to have no doubt about who Jesus and that is what we aspire to. So once again this is an attempt to reinforce the main message of the passage, which is that Jesus is the Messiah, by juxtaposing the ideal, which is complete faith, next to someone who is a poster child for what humanity is. If Nathanael simply believed without any kind of doubt then his belief would be meaningless. This is a message to the reader that even the most fervent of Jesus’s followers had doubts; doubt is not sin, unless you let your doubt take you away from God.
So, what does this have to do with anything, well my hope is that you can see that it is through the complexity of scripture that we can truly begin to understand our role in God’s creation. We are called just like Samuel was; we can serve God and still fall short, just like Eli; which is why Eli’s story is important. We need to rely on the Holy Spirit, because if we do we not, will fall into egregious sin, which is what Paul was stressing to the church at Corinth. We can have doubts, even speak ill of people and still have faith, just like Nathanael did, the key is that in the end we return to God.
There is a group of people, a small group, known as Deacons, who purposely put themselves in the position to be between the Eli’s and the Samuels; between the Paul’s of the world and the people represented by the Corinthians; between the Nathanaels and Philips. They purposely place themselves in the middle of it all. They aspire to bridge the gap in understanding between what the church truly teaches, which is not just that God loves us, and how that translates to the world in which we live; but they also bring what they learn from the world back to the church to say hey, you see that person over there or that group over there, what you’re saying or better yet, what you’re doing, doesn’t include them; so get your act together and fix it. The message they bring to the world is the best kind of evangelism that can happen, presence. Here’s the thing with that though, deacons can only do so much, which is why we are all called to action through our baptism. We are all called to accept the call of God, just like Samuel and Nathanael did, but we can’t forget that sometimes we might be like Eli’s sons or like some of the people in Corinth. What truly matters is did we try, so we are going to practice holy evangelism right now because I want you to see how easy it is. Turn to the person next to you and ask how they are. and then notice their response.
Was that hard? That’s evangelism! Here’s the thing though, doing this at church is easy, but can you do this with someone you don’t know? This week’s homework is to do just that. Ask a complete stranger or at least someone you know, but don’t know well, how they are and then listen. Ask the cashier at the grocery store how they are? Ask the bank clerk, ask your mail carrier, ask the person pumping gas next to you, ask a coworker who tends to stick to themselves and then see what happens. Pay attention their eyes, you will be able to gauge their reaction to your question, pay attention to how you feel afterwards and then at least think about doing it again.