Reflection on the Propers (1 Samuel 3:1-20) By The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
What to do with the inauguration, I thought, as I began to prepare my sermon for Epiphany 2. We can hardly escape the spectacle, since it is all over the tv, internet, newspapers and radio, all of which seem to be on in our household all the time.
Being a person of a certain age, the first news I hear each day is public radio, then once my eyes are open, I sit down with the New York Times. The Saturday edition contains what passes for religion coverage, and luckily today it was a column by Peter Steinfels.
In “Invoking a Presidential Revelatory Moment,” Steinfels recalled the faux debate at the Saddleback Church, with Rick Warren asking identical questions, sequentially, of Barack Obama and John McCain. I noted the equanimity with which Steinfels treated the two candidates and their responses. The column in no way revealed which man Steinfels favored, especially in regard to the campaign-related questions Warren asked, questions like those any reporter covering the “values” beat would raise of a candidate.
Steinfels then repeated the really religious question Warren asked them: “Does evil exist?” he asked each candidate, and if so, “Should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?” Steinfels let the candidates speak for themselves, which struck me as a tactic in the “let those who have ears, let them hear” camp. The full transcript of the answers certainly confirmed my prejudices about the differences between the two men: Obama’s careful, articulate, nuanced answer, in full sentences and paragraphs, smart but not “high-falutin,” vs. McCain’s quick bullet points which seemed intended to give the Saddleback congregation what they came to hear. (Well, in this blog I can reveal where I stand on the election (!) even if in the pulpit I followed Steinfels’ more even-handed approach.)
In my sermon, I cited in its entirety Obama’s answer to the question on evil. It seemed a text much in keeping with the story of Samuel (“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”) and Nathanael (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and “Where did you get to know me?”). Obama’s emphasis on humility, with a commitment to fight evil accompanied by a lack of certainty that the means one chooses is always the right one – I read in Obama’s brief comments both the wide-eyed openness of Samuel as well as the “you’re not going to pull the wool over my eyes” skepticism of Nathanael.
My exegetical quest led me to a 2006 Christian Century essay by Christine Pohl:
“On their own, neither [Samuel] nor Nathanael are able to interpret these strange encounters. Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice, and Nathanael is puzzled by Jesus’ inauspicious origins, and then by his extraordinary capacity to know and to see. But both of them are portrayed as truthful, and the childlike innocence in Samuel is reflected in a description of Nathanael as an Israelite in whom there is "no deceit." No cunning, no spin, no dissimulation, just a purity of heart that helps open their eyes to see God. … Skepticism and inexperience are not barriers [between humans and God] when they are accompanied by truthfulness and transparency.”
Then I went to Jan Richardson’s entry, “Of Fig Trees and Angels,” in The Painted Prayerbook. She read the Nathanael story, and noted the parallel with the story of Jacob’s dream of the angels on the ladder to heaven. He “woke to a larger world than he had ever known, and recognized that God had been in that place,” she wrote. I was particularly drawn to her thoughts at the end of the entry:
“What do you imagine the God of heaven and earth, the God who bridges heaven and earth and causes them to meet—what do you imagine this God is capable of? Can you imagine something beyond that? And beyond that? How might this God be inviting you to imagine and participate in something bigger still?”
On this cusp of change in our nation – and no, I do not harbor the vain hope that Obama and his appointees will solve all our ills – nonetheless, on this cusp of change in our nation, it seems that going into Inauguration Day with the openness of Samuel and the skepticism of Nathanael, and with their truth-seeking guilelessness, would be a good thing. It seems that such a stance is a modest and humble way to embody the hope for which we all long.