Trustworthy Prophets

1 Samuel 3:1–10, (11–20); 2 Corinthians 4:4–12, preached by Chris Bohnhoff on June 02, 2024

Today’s Hebrew Bible reading ends with these words: “As Samuel grew up, God was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of God.” (1 Samuel 3:19–20) Not bad, right? What a legacy! I love this image of Samuel’s words, how God held them aloft. What worthy goals, to speak words that don’t fall to the ground useless and ineffective, to be known to all as a trustworthy messenger and interpreter of God’s love and justice.

It’s particularly relevant for us at First Church as we’ve explored this past year what it is, what it could mean, to be who we claim to be: a progressive, prophetic Christian community. How do we step further into being a prophetic community? How do we build up our own trustworthiness, first to ourselves and then to the wider community, that our words and actions are prophetic—that they align with God’s wishes for a just and compassionate future?

The story of Samuel illustrates the stakes of prophecy. Samuel, a young boy brought to the temple for a life in service to God by his mother, is tasked by God with being the bearer of very bad news to his mentor and guardian, one of the primary sources of safety and stability in his young life, the priest Eli. The backstory of this moment of truth telling comes in the preceding chapter, where we hear that Eli’s two sons for years abused their temple posts for personal gain. They took advantage of their privileged position as intermediaries between the people and God, taking more of the peoples’ sacrifices for themselves than was the custom. Eli, an old man, pleaded with his sons to change their ways but they refused and continued profiting off the sacrifices brought to their temples. Then Eli was visited by a “man of God” who told Eli that his lineage would be punished for his sons’ actions.

Cut to Samuel, a child asleep in the temple, a child offered to God by his mother. Samuel had no connection to this sacrilege and desecration of the holy office of temple priest. He probably had no knowledge of what had happened and certainly no culpability. God came to Samuel three times as he slept and finally on the third attempt, God told Samuel what was about to happen.

Eli knew what was coming. He had already been told once, and he knew that God was trying to get through to Samuel. So, in the morning he asked Samuel what God had told him, and he kept asking until he got the whole message from Samuel.

It’s not easy to be God’s messenger. God generally isn’t like the Publisher’s Clearinghouse van showing up at your door with cameras and a giant check. God generally has something hard for you to do. Hard but necessary. Hard but just.

Much of the power of Biblical stories comes when you try to put yourself into the stories, and I think about Samuel on that morning of reckoning, after God had told him that Eli was in trouble. Here is this old man whom your mother entrusted you to, who feeds you and teaches you the ways of God, and now God has told you that this man is going to be cut off from God’s grace. My heart breaks thinking about that morning, both for Samuel who needed to say something hard to the person most directly responsible for his safety and well-being, and for Eli as the recipient of that hard news, and as the parent of wayward children.

But again, Eli knew that his sons had stolen from God, and that he had been unable to stop them. And along with the guilt, the foreboding, the weight on his shoulders, he knew, he trusted, that God was with Samuel. He heard in Samuel’s nighttime confusion and humility God calling out to Samuel. In the morning, Eli gently but firmly insisted that Samuel tell him the full truth, the prophetic truth, that had been granted Samuel, even though he knew that it would be bad. Tenderly, tragically, Eli trusted that Samuel was God’s prophet that morning, even though Eli was a priest and Samuel was a child. Samuel opened his ears to God’s truth, the story of injustice done, and he delivered the unvarnished, whole truth to Eli. That not-so-small act of truth telling launched Samuel into a lifetime of God’s working through him to bring wisdom to Israel. 

This coming weekend I and several other First Church folks will be engaging in a bit of prophecy ourselves. The Minnesota Conference of the UCC meets for our Annual Meeting this Friday and Saturday, and one of the pieces of business that we will consider is a change to the conference bylaws that adds a new committee under the conference’s Board of Directors. The name of the new committee, if approved, will be the Committee for Dismantling White Supremacy. It will be the center of the conference’s anti-racism work, the center of relationship-building across difference, for education and action, a group within the structure of the conference able to hold up a mirror to the conference and hold it accountable to the goals that have been professed over decades of becoming a multi-racial church seeking justice for marginalized groups. The proposal is being brought by the Ad Hoc Committee for Anti-Racism, chaired by Jane McBride, and including Jean Chagnon, Hikaru Peterson, and myself. 

This is prophetic work. It names the reality that many in our Minnesota UCC community feel far from God’s kin-dom and calls for a change in how we hold covenant with each other. The interlocking modes of domination that comprise white supremacy—racism, sexism, ableism, and transphobia, to name just a few—are embedded in our conference institution, as they are to varying extents in all historically white institutions. These biases separate the folks on the social margins from our church spaces and from the body of Christ. Embedded within this bylaw change is the admission that the Minnesota UCC is not immune from the harmful lens of white supremacy or from systemic racism. Yes, we are progressive and seek justice; yes, the history of the United Church of Christ and our own Congregationalist history contains many proud achievements—and, we can and must be better disruptors of the forces of domination by ensuring that our own institutions, our own house, owns up to the presence of systemic racism and our intention to root it out. Only by doing the uncomfortable work of looking ourselves in the mirror and the way we hold covenant with all in our communities can we show up fully and effectively to do the work of racial and social justice in solidarity, not just as white folks doing our own thing.

We know that the conference can be better because the ad hoc committee heard stories from clergy and lay leaders of color from around the conference who’ve experienced aggressions big and small, who’ve felt disadvantaged in the ordination process and in the hiring process, who just don’t feel like supported members of the body of Christ within the UCC. They have told us of the conference’s sins. 

Just as Samuel was yolked to Eli, we on the ad hoc committee bringing this bylaw change are deeply tied to the Minnesota UCC. We pastor, attend, and lead UCC churches. This is our home. Like Samuel must have felt, it’s not comfortable delivering hard news to your people. But that is exactly what it is to be a prophet.

So what does Samuel’s story teach us about what it means to be a trustworthy prophet as we in this time do our best to be vessels of God’s love and justice? First, Samuel told Eli his whole truth, everything he was told by God. In his love for Eli, or out of fear of making his guardian and mentor angry, Samuel could have softened the message, but he didn’t. He gave the message to Eli straight. Second, Samuel acted with the humility of a child. The text doesn’t tell us that he made himself into Eli’s judge, he simply delivered the message.

This combination of directness and humility is particularly necessary in the work of dismantling white supremacy, because unlike in the story of Samuel, where the prophet had no connection to the sins against God that he reported, we are all implicated in the sins of white supremacy. Even the non-white folks on the ad hoc committee have seen how unconscious ways of being in relationship have been shaped for them by white supremacy culture. We need to be humble because we are both God’s messengers naming the harm, and we are part of the problem. We cannot stand outside of the Minnesota Conference and tell it what it’s doing wrong, because we are the institution in need of examination and change. In the work of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ableism, we are Samuel and Eli.

Building an identity as a trustworthy prophet does not happen as the result of one event, it comes with consistency in how one shows up. Israel’s trust in Samuel grew over time because they saw that Samuel’s words were true, that they didn’t fall to the ground. We also need consistency in how we show up to covenant, in who we listen to, in how we live out the values that we claim to live by. Even when the truth makes our communities uncomfortable, even when it endangers our reputations and relationships, trustworthy prophets deliver the message. 

Friends in Christ, may we become ever-more trustworthy as prophetic Christians. May we name the injustices that we see in the world fully, and may we do so in humility, recognizing our own role in the world’s injustices. May we be God’s mouthpieces, God’s kin-dom builders, God’s humble children. May it be so. Amen.