Letting the boxes fall away

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year B; I Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Do you ever feel like you’ve been boxed in? Like people have this perception or this image of you that you just can’t shake? Take school. Did you have that experience of being labelled a certain way in the 3rd grade and you then had to carry that label all through school, or at least until you went to a different school? Do people think they have your number, but secretly, inside, you know they don’t have your number at all? And that’s just what other people can do to us. What about the boxes we put around ourselves? Do we not attempt something because it’s outside our box? Is our identity so strong that we can’t see ourselves beyond that identity? And what if something in that identity shakes loose—where are we then? Oh, wow, and we haven’t talked about the cultural boxes. What are some of the boxes prescribed by our culture? Gender, race, class, political affiliation, your college basketball team, your school—woe to the person who steps outside the box.

So, we’ve got some boxes in the scriptures today.

There’s the age box. And this cuts both ways today. In our first lesson today, we hear the story of the Samuel and Eli. The boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under the old priest Eli. Samuel was like a son to Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. We’re told that “Eli’s eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see.” It would be easy for others to see Eli as being on his way out, someone who could be disregarded, ignored, an irrelevant priest who couldn’t see a vision if his life depended upon it.

One night, the boy Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was—Samuel was lying down close to the mystery. Eli was lying down in his room. The LORD called out, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel said, “Here I am!” Samuel thought it was old Eli. He runs to Eli—“Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I didn’t call; go lie down.” It happened again, “Samuel!” Samuel ran back to Eli’s room—“Here I am for you called me.” “Uh, nope; I didn’t call my son; go lie down again.” The LORD called a third time, and the boy went to Eli—“Here I am, for you called me.”

Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. Then, Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak LORD, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the LORD came and stood there, stood there, right before Samuel, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”—almost with that “can I please get a hearing?” tone. And this time, Samuel said, “Speak LORD, for your servant is listening.”

Then the LORD laid out before Samuel a harrowing vision indeed. It wasn’t what Samuel wanted to hear it all. The LORD revealed to Samuel how the house of Eli was about to be utterly destroyed. You see, Eli’s two boys were priests, but they were scoundrels. They stole from the offerings that people made; they engaged in sexual misconduct; they abused their power, and all of this denigrated the people of God and God Godself. It was the worst of clergy abuse. Wherever there is power, there is the potential for abuse of that power.

Now, we might not understand or even believe in a God who active destroys those who do evil—that sure doesn’t fit my “loving God” frame—but the point here is that God isn’t cool with priests abusing their power, and God will remove them from service. In our day and time, priests who abuse their office are taken through a Title IV canonical proceeding and deposed, stripped of their holy orders; in that day and time, God handled it a little more directly.

At any rate, Samuel loved the old priest Eli, and the last thing he wanted to do was tell Eli about the vision. Samuel didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night. He lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell Eli about the vision. Eli may not have been able to see, but his powers of perception were still quite intact. Eli called to Samuel, and said, in the most tender of voices, “Samuel, my son.” Samuel responded, now for the fifth time, “Here I am.” Eli couldn’t see Samuel’s eyes clearly, but he could sense their sadness; he could sense the shift in Samuel—“What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. None of this was news to Eli—he’d known of the problems with his sons, and he knew that there would be grave consequences when those boys kept abusing their power. Then Eli said, from a place of total surrender, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

And Eli knew that the mantle had passed.

There is so much to this story.

It would have been tempting for Eli to stay in the “irrelevant” box, or the “I can’t see so well anymore, what use am I” box; it would have been tempting not to exert the energy to exercise the gifts of perception that he had spent a lifetime cultivating. Eli has to step out of all the boxes so that he can hear what is actually happening between God and Samuel. Without old Eli’s wise counsel, there is no mechanism for the young boy Samuel to know what to do with this experience.

And it would have been tempting for the young Samuel to completely disregard the voice calling him. Samuel could have thought Eli was just a goofy old guy muttering in his sleep and rolled over and gone back to sleep, but Samuel didn’t see Eli as that old priest who should be disregarded. But having dodged that box, there was another that Samuel would have to contend with, and that’s the “I’m just a kid” box—“who am I to receive such a vision, and who am I to speak it???” Samuel will have to step out of the “I’m not worthy, I’m not experienced enough, I’m not courageous enough” box to speak the word that God has given him to speak. And actually, these boxes can come up no matter your age. It is hard to speak a hard truth. We have to shed a lot of boxes and ground ourselves in a different place to have the courage to receive and reveal the hard visions.

Let’s leave Samuel and Eli for a minute and go to the gospel story for today. That exchange between Philip and Nathanael is just classic; this is the “can anything good come out of Nazareth” box. That’s almost humorous, because do you know where Nathanael was from? He was from Cana. It’s not like Cana was any big metropolis or anything. Cana was two ridges over. The big deal in that part of Galilee was Sepphoris. That was where the scene was happening. Nazareth lay to the south of Sepphoris and Cana to the north. It’s like a rivalry that might develop between, say, Boone and Blowing Rock, with a cosmopolitan Asheville in-between.

But really, don’t we do this “can anything good come out of Nazareth” thing all the time? Can anything good come out of the other political party? Can anything good come out of that other religion? Can anything good come out of someone who hangs out with those people? Think of who really gets under your skin, that person that you endlessly argue with in your head, that person that you’ve spent hours and days trying to figure out, and by golly, you’ve done it; you’ve got their box nailed down. Ever done that? Show of hands? Honest show of hands? Okay, then you know Nathanael.

And here’s the way cool thing about Philip’s response. He doesn’t argue the facts with his friend whose vision is about this wide. He doesn’t cajole, rebut, refute, make his case, prove his point. What does he do? What does he say? “Come and see.” In this story, it’s only by engaging with the other, getting to “know” the other that the boxes fall away and we can “see” the One whom we couldn’t see before. Nathanael has to let go of who he thinks this guy from Nazareth is to see the One in whom heaven and earth meet, the One around whom the energy of God just swirls—the text describes it as angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man—what a great way to describe this energy of God that just swirled around Jesus—you could feel it, and in some mystical way, you could see it.

Boxes. We get them today, and we’ll get them several weeks from now on the Last Sunday after Epiphany when we hear the story of the Transfiguration. Boxes. We deal with them all the time.

What boxes have you applied to yourself and to others? What purpose are they serving you, and what might be possible if you let them fall away?

What might be possible if you step beyond them? What reconciliation might open up if you let others out of them?

What could we hear and perceive from God if we lower the walls around our hearts and lay our hearts open before God and listen with all our being?

What courage might be unleashed if we know our identity is sure and solid in that psalm 139 kind of way where we know that the LORD has searched us out and known us, knows our sitting down and our rising up, discerns our thoughts, traces our journeys and our resting-places and is acquainted with all our ways?

What might we see of Jesus if we lay aside our preconceived notions and simply come?

So, let us end where we began.

May we have the courage to be Eli to one another, to perceive that the LORD is calling,    and to encourage one another to utter those most frightening and vulnerable of words, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”

May we have the courage of Samuel to keep answering, “Here I am,”        even if it’s the last place you want to be.

May we have the courage of Philip not to argue the boxes, but to stand firm in the mystery of a deeper truth.

May we have the courage of Nathanael to move beyond our skepticism and come and see anyway.

And may we have the patience and presence of Jesus who knows that the only way out of the boxes is encounter with him—the One in whom and through whom all things live and move and have their being.

Jesus defied the boxes, always, and it will be he who will show us how to live when we let the boxes fall away. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 18, 2015