We All Do What We Can, Epiphany 2 (B) – 2012
January 15, 2012
Hannah was barren. She could not have children. In the ancient times, this was a disgrace, but her husband loved her and did not care. Hannah cared. She stood deeply ashamed in the presence of other women. She was an underdog.
Like so many of us who turn to the Lord when we need help, Hannah turned to the Lord God, the friend of the underdog. The Lord heard Hannah’s prayer.
Eli was the priest on duty when Hannah petitioned God, and he announced, “God has granted your petition. You will have a baby.”
Within the next year, Hannah gave birth to a son, Samuel. When Hannah returned the next year to pray, she did the unthinkable: she donated Samuel to God, leaving him behind to be raised by Eli. In dedicating Samuel to God, Hannah proclaimed: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.”
Years later, this same Samuel anointed Saul and David as kings over Israel. It was to the boy Samuel, only 12 years old, to whom God spoke today’s strange prophecy of judgment. This prophecy was his first, and he didn’t quite know what to do with it. After all, the prophecy was directed at his adopted father, Eli, his mentor and caretaker.
“Here I am,” Samuel answered God, who spoke out loud. How terrifying it must have been for a boy to hear God’s harsh judgment from dark corners of the night.
That is the “Old” Testament, isn’t it? Dark corners, rash judgment, and cruel penalties? Perhaps, but consider, well, the “rest of the story.”
Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord, just like their father. Unlike their father, they were bad priests. “Scoundrels,” Scripture dubs them.
These scoundrels stole the meat people sacrificed to God so they could eat a steak dinner. Far worse, they raped the women of – essentially – the altar guild, the women who served at the tent of meeting.
Eli tried to stop them. He attempted that wonderful and oh-so-effective parenting method: he talked to them. They ignored Eli, and I feel certain that they did not respect him, either. Eli should have stripped Hophni and Phinehas of their priesthood and kicked them out; but he did not.
Because Eli would not do anything meaningful, God had to. God may be longsuffering, but God will not tolerate abuse of power forever. God is a friend to the oppressed, the abused, the hungry, and the destitute. To this day, God assumes the cause of the oppressed, the abused, the hungry, and the destitute. Note Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, sent by God to set people free. Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa. Prophets who spoke God’s word they discovered in the dark corners of the night.
Here is a story about a fellow named John. John was homeless, although he did claim as his the city block in front of a downtown office tower. John kept an eye on the tower, watching people come and go on his block, familiarizing himself with their faces. One professional man made a deep impression on John. He was always impeccably dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit, Johnston Murphy shoes, and silver cufflinks.
John assumed correctly that the fellow worked on the top floor of the office tower. One day, John decided to ask the man his burning question. As the fellow arrived at his usual time, John jumped up from his spot over the grate, and stood in front of the man so he would have to stop.
“Excuse me. Uh, excuse me.”
The professional was astonished that John had stopped him and was speaking to him. Homeless people seldom spoke to him, except to ask for a dollar.
“Excuse me. I just, well, I have to know.” The man debated anger, feigned indifference, and wondered curiously at John.
“Uh, can you, can you people up there, way up top – can you people see us way down here from up there? On the street? Can you see us?”
That is the same question you may have asked God. “Can you see me, God, from way up there?”
Or – the underdog in me wants to know – will you assume my cause? God, do you care? Like the disciples speaking to Jesus in the boat on the angry sea, Don’t you care that we are going to die?
Do you care that I am lonely, that I feel oppressed? Do you care that my marriage is on the rocks, that I need a job. God, can you see me from way up there?
Only God is not way up in some lofty tower of heaven, but here, this close, mobilizing heaven and earth on your behalf. Mobilizing star and cherubim, mountain and seraphim, to rescue you, to free you from oppression. Just like God freed those abused by Hophni and Phinehas. The friend to the underdog.
But – what of those on the top floor?
What happens when the Christian becomes the oppressor, what then?
Christian commentator, Martin Marty, tells the story of attending an historian’s convention. The presenter spoke about Southern clergy in 1861. Most clergy, it seems, were surprisingly moral and devout men, educated and caring pastors, and thoughtful preachers. To a person, these devout men defended human slavery, claiming it to be a response to divine mandates and will, authorized Biblically.
“Well,” Martin and his colleagues later agreed. “That was one blind group of clergy.” How could these men have been so blind?
One among Martin’s colleagues, however, stopped the conversation and asked each of them to write on a piece of paper the issue that would make people a century from now ask the same of us, “How could they have been so blind?”
Each of Martin’s colleagues wrote that we are quite blind when it comes to our own underclass, those who do the heavy lifting for us – the laborers, and I don’t mean the laborers at the Ford factory, but the Mexican immigrants, the men and women working in your garden, changing your hotel sheets. What about those people?
Martin and his colleagues acknowledged quickly that they, good Christians, have blind spots. It is what the 99 percent is saying of the one percent.
In many ways throughout our lives, we are the oppressed, either literally or figuratively. Those times of seeming oppression are easy for us to see clearly. What we don’t see are the many instances in which we, albeit accidentally, assume the role of oppressor.
Think about it. There is an AIDS epidemic in the developing world that will make as many as one-third of Africans orphaned. We – the rich nations – have the drugs to help, to do something monumental about this. But mostly, we do not. Not really. Spare change, but that’s about it.
Likewise, we are aware of our excessive consumption and its effect on the world – not just environmentally, but the pace at which we are using up resources. But we do not do much about it. It’s like seeing a big black Cadillac Escalade sporting a bumper sticker with the words “Save the Earth.”
The irony that we are the oppressors is lost on us. We live at the top of the office tower, but as those at the top, do we see those people way down there?
Tomorrow we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe you will attend an event, maybe you won’t. I hope you will honor the prophet in him, the man who rejected society’s blindness and assumed the vision of God, the man who called an entire nation to repentance, to change, to see itself more clearly. On such a day as tomorrow, we can do more than remember this prophet of God; we can re-enact him, his honesty, his desire for equality, the realization that there is no artificial tower, and that we are all in need of God’s grace. We can regain the promise that when one of us hurts, we all hurt together. We all do what we can.
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