We are looking over the wall to tomorrow, to Martin Luther King Jr. Day which we celebrate by taking a day off from work and not doing a whole bunch. The people who are doing something tomorrow are doing it today as well also so they’re not here to hear me this morning. They’re on the lake or at the cabin or visiting the kids or whatever.
We are also listening to the sounds of the Lord’s voice calling to Samuel, calling to him and giving him the bad news about the lord’s plans for his master, Eli for all that his sons had done. Each of them was answering a calling, each of them was being sent on a mission by the Lord.
I know, it’s a stretch, linking the two and to be truthful they are not parallel illustrations, but underneath each of the stories there is a question of freedom, a question of right and wrong, a parable about the need to never, ever take for granted the gifts of the Lord and the callings into which we have been called.
We don’t get the back story, that is one of the limitations of lectionary preaching, you end up explaining a lot of things but it’s a pretty good story so let me tell it to you.
Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phineas and they were, according to the New Revised Standard Version, scoundrels, stealing from those who came to the temple at Shiloh to offer sacrifice. They would take meat from the boiling pots, extort meat from those offering prayers and sacrifice, they were scumbags who took for granted the callings they ad in the Holy Temple at Shiloh for they were priests like their father, Eli.
Eli was quite old and he heard of all the things that his children had done, how they stole from the Lord’s people, how they lay with those women serving at the entrance of the tent of meeting, how they essentially acted like idiot frat boys drunk on privilege and taking little heed of their duties or what they meant.
He reprimanded them but did nothing else, though it was in his power to do so. You love your kids and don’t want to hurt them so you give them slack, enough rope so to speak, even though it was clear that Eli’s sons had every intention of hanging themselves with their evil ways.
God sent Eli a prophet who listed the ways in which, by not acting to stop his sons and indeed profiting from their wickedness by fattening himself with the booty they extorted from others, Eli had called upon himself the wrath of God, for he honored his sons more than he honored the Lord.
That is the background story for this morning, how we got to the place where Samuel, a child given over to the service of the Lord’s worship by his mother in thanks that she was given a child at all, she who had been barren, heard the word of the Lord and announced to Eli all that the lord told him about Eli’s fate. Eli finally heard because it came from the mouth of one who lived in the temple, who served in the temple, who could not have heard from anyone but the Lord and Eli accepted the judgment of God.
Eli’s sons too had a calling, though it may not have been a voice in the night, but they also had a calling to which they did not answer, to their peril, we learn this morning.
The fundamental difference, to me at least, is the question of what freedom is about. Phineas and Hophni had freedom. They could do as they pleased and not have there be repercussions. They treated freedom, as impunity and acted that way, as if freedom were permission to do things, they had the freedom to steal food, the freedom to act lewdly, the freedom to get what they could from whoever they could get it, for as long as they could, as much as they could.
They saw freedom as the freedom to do and to have and to act and to be certain things.
I don’t think that Dr. King saw it that way.
Of course the situation was a little different. While Dr. King may have been a person of privilege within his own community, his was not a place of honor in the national culture, or even the local culture in the many places where he stood and spoke and wrote and marched.
It was really as easy as it seemed to take his life away. Like so many before and after him his life was at stake each and every day he awoke and made the decision to answer his calling, his calling to lead a charge toward freedom, toward freedom, not to do this or that, not freedom to act a certain way, but freedom from the kind of threat under which he lived, the kind of deferred death sentence that African Americans lived under in certain parts of America in those days.
We are shocked at the thought of it, but it is true. The freedoms that we take for granted in the 21st century were not widely available to wide swaths of our population even fifty years ago and in some pockets, shrinking thankfully, they still aren’t.
But the vision was not of freedom to do and to say the things that white people did and said, not the freedom to access certain freedoms, certain activities. He knew as most Christians do that once you say that you have the freedom to do something you are instantly limited to those things on the to do list and he also knew that there would be plenty of people standing around waiting to tell them what was on the list, the things they had the freedom to do.
This is the freedom that Eli’s kids felt. They were priests because they were Eli’s kids and the job was inherited and they had had the run of the place since they were children. They saw the opportunities, the things that were proscribed but that they could get away with if they acted with impunity.
They stole food from the sacrifices. They slept with the women who came to the tent of meeting, they had their list of things they felt the freedom to do because of their positions as priests of the Lord’s temple.
I think their vision was too limited.
You see, freedom to is only that list, the list of things we are free to do. Inevitably is becomes a list of things you can get away with. It is the world of the law, the world of prohibitions, there are plenty of them in all walks of life where the law reigned and if there was ever a place where the law reigned it was in the temple.
If the world is proscribed into little boxes, little prohibitions and little blessings, each of them codified and outlined in bright red ink saying “thou shalt not” then sin immediately tries to find the exception, the loophole, the back door.
The law is the list, the limitation, the cop on the corner making sure that the things of the law are not violated.
Not so the gospel.
The grace of God is such that we are no longer bound to the set of rules, the instruction manual for a righteous life, do this, don’t do that and you’ll be fine. Grace is the love of God shown in Christ Jesus who didn’t so much show us what to do but reminded us that everything we do has meaning.
Because what we do can be done to God’s glory, walking down the street can be done to god’s glory because it is not an item on a list, not a permission given.
We are not freed to things. The Gospel frees us from things.
Which is better.
Freedom from the sting of death and the punishment we have earned through our sin. Freedom from fear along the journey of our life because we know what our destination is. Freedom from wondering if we are ever going to measure up because we are led to confess that no one is ever going to measure up, those are the gifts of the Gospel, not a list of things to do but freedom from sin and death so that we can live.
That’s all anyone suffering under oppression wants to do. It doesn’t even have to be political or social oppression, it can be illness or prejudice or loneliness. Whatever it is that keeps us from living fully, whatever it is that holds us back from being what God created us to be is not simply holding us back from a list of things we could do, it is preventing us from living fully, abundantly.
The sons of Eli lived in a world proscribed by the Law, with specific prohibitions against specific behaviors and they did what people will do when they forget that they are the children of God and are blessed by God’s love and care. Of all the ways that they could have responded, of all the lives they could have led, they chose to pick away at the rules, to skirt the limitations one by one, finding the loopholes they needed to get away with the things they wanted to do.
That’s how the world sees freedom too. You hear it on the news all the time, pundits and politicians saying that we should be free to do this, or to act this way, or to get rich. That’s the big one, especially on the television news, it’s as if that were the only goal of humankind, as if something were holding us back from that and we needed unfettered freedom to acquire and to hoard and to gain wealth. It is a story about things, it is freedom to acquire things.
I don’t think that’s what consumes most folks. With the world teetering constantly on the brink of war, economic collapse, with the fear of violence and unemployment, with the perception that the institutions of the country are collapsing, our schools and our churches and our banking institutions and our government, I think what a lot of people actually want is the simple freedom from the troubles of the world.
Freedom from crushing poverty. Freedom from humiliation in our work or our homes. Freedom from worry about making the next mortgage payment. Freedom from fear of violence or oppression. In many parts of the world freedom from oppression is a much more palpable desire.
We want to live with dignity, free from injustice. We want to live with hope, free from despair. We want to live with love, free from the burden of propriety.
The possibilities are endless for a life freed from the things that hold us back. It is not a list of thing we can do, but a list of things that do not limit us and an endless field of possibilities ahead of us.
That’s what Dr. King wanted for not just African Americans, but all people, endless possibilities, hope and a future without burden.
It is the gift of the Gospel to us all, if we will only stop and see it, surrender to it and make it real in how we live.
The gospel frees us to live without limits because in the end, Christ has made us whole in the eyes of God, no limitations, neither the ones we place upon ourselves nor the ones of the world outside will matter because we are truly free when our horizon is the cross of Christ.
It is not permission; it is not impunity, that’s where Eli’s boys went wrong. They didn’t trust that God’s care was theirs, that God’s love was sufficient and so they sought to live greedily, getting what they could while they lived.
It is instead the trust that everything we do can be a blessing, not just to ourselves but also to others. It is the trust that even when we go astray, even when we sin, we are not abandoned, freedom follows us and abides with us so that we can always return to the life Christ redeemed for us, concerned with people and not with things, not even heaven.
There are no limits to the life we can live, we are free.