Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
The second Sunday of Epiphany, 14th of January 2018
In 2006 an American civil rights activist, Tarana Burke, started the ‘Me Too’ movement. In 1997 she had met a young girl named Heaven in Alabama. Heaven told Tarana that she had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, and Tarana didn’t know what to say. She never saw the girl again. Eventually Tarana realised that what she wished she had said to Heaven was, ‘Me Too,’ and so almost ten years after meeting Heaven Tarana started encouraging women to say just that. Last year, when accusations of sexual harassment and assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein were made public, actor Alyssa Milano took up Tarana Burke’s words, ‘Me Too,’ using them as a hashtag on social media. The #MeToo campaign exploded, as women all around the world who had been sexually harassed or abused or assaulted by men, said #MeToo on platforms including Facebook and Twitter.
I said it. I tweeted #MeToo and put it on my Facebook page. My most recent experience of sexual harassment, relatively minor when compared to the stories of abuse and assault experienced by many other women, was when I was in Israel, a few years’ ago, when a man selling drinks outside the Old City of Jerusalem stuck his hand down my shirt and into my bra to grope my breasts. I’m still annoyed with myself, because my response was simply to politely disentangle myself from him, say ‘thank you,’ and walk away. I didn’t challenge him; I didn’t try to report him to anyone. I just accepted being groped as something that happens to women when we’re alone in a foreign country and, as I said, something relatively minor. But what the #MeToo movement reminded me was that it isn’t just something that can happen to women in foreign countries; it’s something that can happen to women anywhere. And I would never believe that my nieces, for example, need accept the occasional ‘minor’ grope, so why should I believe that I need to? The #MeToo movement was a wake-up call for me.
I’m talking about #MeToo because today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures reminds us that the sexual abuse of women is as old as time. Often we only hear the first part of today’s reading; the Revised Common Lectionary puts verses 11 to 20 in brackets as ‘optional’. The first part of the reading is about God’s calling of Samuel; an unusual calling story because Samuel responds eagerly and immediately, offering himself and his life to God, rather than trying to get out of the calling as leaders like Moses and Jonah did. I preached on that the last time this reading came up, and on the excellent job that Eli did as mentor to Samuel. This time, I want us to focus on God’s first message to Samuel after Samuel takes on the role of prophet, and on the dreadful job that Eli apparently did as a father to his sons.
Eli may be a wonderful mentor for Samuel, but he is a failure as a father. Before today’s reading we are told of his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, that ‘the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.’ (1 Samuel 2:12-13a) When worshippers were offering sacrifices at Shiloh, the servant of Hophni and Phinehas would come, while the meat offered as sacrifice was still boiling, and stick a fork into the pot to take the priests’ share of the meat. Their servant would also sometimes demand the priests’ share of meat before it was even cooked; not allowing the people offering sacrifices to burn the fat. In Leviticus it is said that ‘all fat is the Lord’s’ (3:16) and that worshippers were to turn the fat into smoke on the altar before giving the priests a share of the meat (6:31). By not allowing people to burn the fat Eli’s sons were stealing from the Lord. When those offering the sacrifice asked the priests’ servant to let them burn the fat and then take the priests’ share, the servant threatened to take it by force.
Furthermore, Eli hears that his sons lie with the women who serve at the entrance to the tent of meeting. There’s no way that the women could be freely consenting to lying with Eli’s sons; Hophni and Phinehas are raping them. Eli knows that all this is going on, he hears about it from the people, and he remonstrates with his sons. But his sons ignore him and continue on their wicked ways. A man of God tells Eli that because Eli is honouring his sons more than his Lord his family will be cut off. God had promised Eli’s ancestor that his descendants would serve the Lord as priests forever, but the actions of Eli’s sons have prompted a change of mind, and Eli’s strength and the strength of his family will be cut off.
This is also God’s first message to Samuel. Once Samuel realises, with the help of Eli, that the voice he hears is God’s, God tells him: ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’ Samuel is naturally reluctant to tell Eli that God is going to punish his house, but Eli convinces him, and then responds ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
Later, the Lord does as he has threatened. In a battle between Israel and the Philistines Israel is defeated; the ark of God is captured; and Eli’s two sons are slain. When Eli, now ninety-eight years old and blind, hears this, he falls over backwards from his seat, breaks his neck, and dies. The strength and glory of his house has ended.
God’s treatment of Eli might seem unfair. The Lord tells Samuel that Eli is being punished because he knew what his sons were doing and didn’t restrain them. But we know that Eli did condemn them, and his sons didn’t listen to him. Eli was very old; can he be blamed because he couldn’t persuade his scoundrel sons to change their wicked ways? Some biblical commentators believe he can, and I tend to agree with them. Eli doesn’t seem to have been a particularly good priest, no matter how helpful he was to Samuel. The very first time we meet him he is observing Samuel’s mother in prayer and because her lips are moving while she is speaking silently, he accuses her of drunkenness: ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ When he knows that his sons are stealing from the Lord and raping women Eli doesn’t have them removed from their positions. Since Eli has heard of their evil doings from ‘all the people,’ presumably ‘all the people’ would have been on his side if the old man had asked for their help in deposing his sons. But instead Eli merely remonstrates with his sons once, and lets them continue on. Eli is accused by biblical commentators of being an indulgent and weak parent, whose failure to discipline his sons in their youth led to them believing that they could sin more extravagantly once they were in positions of power. Eli is punished for his sin: allowing and facilitating the sins of others.
From the story of Eli, it appears that the Lord agrees with Lieutenant General David Morrison and the Governor of NSW, General David Hurley, that ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept’. This is also the attitude of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse, which has recommended the creation of a new criminal offence: the failure to report. If the government accepts this recommendation all adults who know or suspect child sexual abuse is occurring in religious and other institutions will be required to report it and failure to do so will be a crime. (It’s already a crime in Victoria, as a result of the earlier Victorian inquiry into child sexual abuse.)
The Lord tells Samuel that he is going to punish Eli for ‘the iniquity that he knew,’ not the iniquity that Eli did. It’s taken centuries, but maybe social attitudes are finally catching up with the Lord.
‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9) There will always be people in positions of power who will use that power to benefit themselves and oppress others, as Hophni and Phinehas did. There will always be people who know that abuse is happening but do little or nothing about it, as Eli did. But today’s story tells us what God thinks of that. The Lord condemns it. Maybe knowing that will help us to make the right decision and do the right thing when we see iniquity. Last time I preached on this passage I encouraged us all to imitate Eli when given the opportunity to mentor those who will replace us. Let us not imitate Eli when we see wrong-doing. Let us do our best to restrain the Hophnis and Phinehases of our time. Sadly, there are all too many of them.