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Not, I Had A Dream by Stephen Savage

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It is rare that a scripture and a moment align in such a way as to seem intent on one specific point, and yet today on this Sunday when we remember the life and work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, and we hear the story of a single night in the lives of Eli and Samuel, I can’t help but feel that that is exactly what is happening today. The story of Samuel and Eli brings up a lot of things, and we as human beings can find many different ways to relate to these two very human characters. That’s something I love about the bible, from the Torah to the Christian scriptures, the Bible as we hold it today, is a collection of very human stories. Eli is an old, experienced, devout man. His life has been committed to serving God, and yet he is flawed, he has been lenient with his sons as they have broken God’s laws, presumably because they were his sons. And Samuel is young, curious, innocent, and loyal, to the very point of almost ignoring God’s instructions. Both of these people are a collection of good and bad qualities and very different life experiences, yet for me, they are more than two individual’s flaws and gifts, they are a pairing meant to represent all of us, as we are individuals today, and as we are a community. In that way we can see both our personal and communal past and future in this brief story of a night of disrupted sleep. If one were to give the story of Samuel and Eli a subtitle, they might call it, a question of accountability…

As we wade into yet another year, the idea of accountability should be central in our minds. We thought, acted on, and wrestled with the issue of race a lot last year, and for many of us, the idea of reentering that area is less than appealing. And yet, for literally hundreds of years, the experience of black, and brown Americans has been very different from that of those of us of white European descent, despite the fact that as United States citizens, we self-identify with the phrase “all men created equal” or “all people created equal” as I imagine we would word it today, and the promise of “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Where is our accountability, if these elements of our identity are not sought, protected, and fought for, for everyone? When describing the atrocities of racial injustice and violence in Birmingham Alabama, under the watchful eye and heavy hand of Sheriff Bull Conner, the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said that the ultimate tragedy of Birmingham, was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people. And just as we see in Eli from today’s scripture, in what that brief snippet from Dr. King describes, we see a failure of accountability. Who knows why the good people of Birmingham failed to defend the rights and dignity of their black and brown neighbors, perhaps like Eli they couldn’t imagine that their brothers and sisters, parents, aunts uncles, teachers, or friends could act in such heinous ways, maybe they didn’t want to believe it, or if they did believe it, they thought it disloyal to address it, or maybe they were afraid. I imagine that many of us have fallen under one of these umbrellas in our lives, when we have failed to act in defense of or support of someone in need, someone mistreated, persecuted, deprived, or unloved. But where is our accountability, who holds us accountable.

When Samuel was intent on withholding God’s bad news out of fear, loyalty and love for Eli, something very important happened, it was Eli who held Samuel to his responsibility, despite I imagine, knowing that he wouldn’t like what he was going to hear, knowing that he was in the wrong, having failed to act as God expected, Eli held Samuel to that God directed path of responsible, accountable, action. And in doing so pushed Samuel to name his shortcomings, flaws, and moments of hypocrisy, though they would have been hard to hear. Pushed him to say aloud how God was displeased, disappointed, and even outright angry with Eli’s failure to standup for what he claimed to believe…

In the end it is the young boy, the new believer, the future actor in God’s work that holds his predecessor to task, and God is pleased with Samuel for it. Yet what doesn’t get enough attention in the text is the fact that it was the teaching of that older priest that gave the boy the strength to hold his whole world, because that was what Eli was for him, it gave him the strength to hold his world accountable! And we have to learn from this! As a church we have existed for a very long time and expressed to the world God’s wish for Love as the central tenet of all creation, and yet we have failed to live into that teaching as often as we have succeeded, both as the church universal, and as the church which exists in us personally as congregations and as individuals. In that way we are the older more experienced figure who has fallen short of living into our purpose, and our responsibility at least as often as we have achieved it. And we must be held accountable if we are to do any better. Because if we are allowed to sit comfortably in our inaction and our submission to injustice, then it will continue to grow and spread. In that way it is the inaction of those of us dedicated to the pursuit of God’s perfect kingdom of justice, mercy and love in this world, that is the ultimate tragedy of this moment.

But there is hope for us, because I believe that just as much as we are that older voice of Eli, we are the voice of Samuel as well, the voice of the future. We can learn and find great wisdom and inspiration in the teachings of those that have come before us, yet we are not yet rutted to their path and when we hear or see or feel those older patterns of inaction and disinterest, whatever motivates them, we can call them out, name them, and hold them, hold ourselves accountable. In this way I believe we can move toward that promised kingdom of justice and love, but we can only do this if we accept that even in our wisdom, and even as good as we know ourselves to be, we have fallen short and there is a long way to go, so we must hold ourselves accountable.

In August of 1963, Rev. Dr. King gave a speech that continues to ring in our nation to this day. In it, Rev King famously stated, “I have a dream”! He dreamt that one day his four children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, and that white boys and girls would hold hands and play with black boys and girls on playgrounds in Alabama. These dreams are not wild fantasies of mounded gold and jewels, yet they continue to elude more often than one might imagine to this day. Did you hear the tense of his statement though? He didn’t say I had a dream, he said I have a dream, because the work was not yet done, but he had not given up on it. We must hear that conviction, follow those footsteps, and hold ourselves accountable to that same drive for a better future. I would like to quote Rev. King, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” I don’t think it hyperbole to go a few steps further than Rev. King, it would be fatal for this world to ignore the urgency of the moment! We must be held accountable; we must hold one another accountable. Because we have so much work to do, but if I close my eyes, I can imagine, I can dream of a world where God’s kingdom exists here and now, and not in some far-off future. Let’s work towards that dream together. Amen


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