After God led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, they wandered through the wilderness for a generation or so. Eventually, they came to Canaan, the land that God had promised to them through their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They subdued the land—and the people in it—and they got together at Shiloh. And they set up the tent of meeting—the house of God, the center of worship, the place of sacrifice—there.
The Israelites didn’t just worship at Shiloh, of course. They worshipped at home. They feasted and fasted. They observed the holidays and festivals. They prayed and sang. They told stories the stories and remembered the Lord.
But when it was time to offer sacrifices to the Lord, they went to Shiloh.
And once upon a time, Eli was the high priest at Shiloh. And his two sons—Hophni and Phinehas—served with him.
And Hophni and Phinehas were… bad priests.
When the people came to Shiloh to offer sacrifices to the Lord, Hophni and Phinehas would take the best bits for themselves. And when women served at the tent of meeting—the house of God, the center of worship, the place of sacrifice—they would… abuse their power.
They were bad priests. And bad priests are dangerous.
We don’t have priests. Well, that’s not quite right…
A priest is someone who has the authority and responsibility to stand before God… to mediate the relationship between God and the people… to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. And there are Christian traditions that have priests. There are Christian traditions who have set people apart to do priestly things: to celebrate the eucharist, to forgive sins, to bless, to preach, and to sanctify.
But in our tradition, a long time ago, we decided that God had taken on that responsibility… that Christ was the only mediator who we needed… that the sacrifice had been made.
And we decided that because of what Christ has done—because Christ has lived and died and risen—each and every one of us can stand before God, and be part of this relationship, and offer all that we have and all that we are.
So we don’t have priests. Well, that’s not quite right. Everyone is a priest; you are a priest.
And that means that you do not need me to break the bread or pour the wine…
…or forgive your sins or to tell you that your sins are forgiven…
…or offer the blessings or preach the good news…
…or sanctify the world or to tell you that Christ is the one who sanctifies.
I do not have any more authority that any of you. I’ve just taken on the responsibility to make sure that those things happen… and to help you make them happen
And that’s important, because there is a temptation…
Before I was ordained—when I was in the wilderness between graduating from seminary and being set apart for this work—a friend of mine was the pastor at a church, and he asked me to provide pulpit supply for him. He asked me to lead worship while he took a well-deserved vacation with his family.
And I told him that I would be happy to. But I knew that, in his tradition, they celebrate communion every week. And I told him that I wasn’t ordained, and that some people get persnickety about that.
And he told me that it was fine. But, since some people get persnickety about that, maybe I shouldn’t announce it.
So, one Sunday, I stood in front of his congregation, and I preached, and I celebrated communion.
A while later, I was in the process of discernment: that wilderness where a candidate for ordination and the denomination work together to figure out whether that candidate should be set aside for this work. And I met with the Committee on Ministry for the Western Association of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ.
And for some reason that I don’t remember, I told them that story.
So someone asked: if I thought that just anyone could celebrate communion—if I thought just anyone could break the bread and pour the wine and say the words—then why was I seeking ordination at all?
You see, there’s this temptation to confuse responsibility with authority… to think, that because some of us have been set apart for this work—that because some of us have agreed to make sure that those priestly things happen—that we are the only ones who can do this work.
And to deny the wonders of this work…
…of breaking bread and pouring wine…
…of forgiving sins and telling people that their sins are forgiven…
…of offering the blessings and preaching the good news…
…of sanctifying the world or telling people that it is Christ who sanctifies…
…to deny the wonders of that work to everyone else.
We—the clergy, the ordained, the ones set apart for this work—can start imagining that we’re priests. And, imagining that we’re priests, we can be bad priests. And bad priests are dangerous.
In our reading today, we meet Samuel. And Samuel is… nobody.
He will be somebody. He will be a judge and a prophet. He will make kings and tear them down. He will hear the word of the Lord and deliver it to the people.
But right now, in this moment, he’s just this kid. His mom had wanted a son so badly. And she made a deal with God: if you give me a son, I will dedicate him to your service until the day of his death. And God heard her. And she had a son. And she brought him to Shiloh. And now he serves the Lord under Eli and Hophni and Phinehas.
(She still visits. Every year, she makes him a robe and brings it to him. But still…)
And one night, he hears a voice calling his name. “Samuel! Samuel!”
And there’s no one around but Eli. So Samuel goes to him and says, “Here I am!”
But Eli says that he didn’t call. And Eli tells him to go back to bed.
But he hears the voice again and again. And he runs to Eli again and again. And it takes a few times, but Eli figures it out: God is calling to Samuel; and Samuel should listen.
So Samuel goes to back to bed. And when he hears the voice again, he listens.
And God tells him:
Bad priests are dangerous. Hophni and Phinehas are terrible. And I told Eli what would happen to him and his sons and all of his descendants. And the day is coming when I will take Eli’s family away from the priesthood forever. And I will raise up a faithful priest for myself, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind.
After Samuel hears this, he just lies there for a while. And in the morning, he gets up, and he goes to Eli. And Eli asks Samuel what God told him. And Samuel tells him… everything.
And it’s a little unclear here. It’s a little ambiguous. But either Samuel is brave enough to tell the high priest, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Or the high priest is humble enough to tell this nobody who was left at his doorstep one day, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
And here’s the thing:
I know how easy it can be to feel like we—the people, the all of us, the ones who didn’t think we were being set apart for this work—are… nobodies…
…like there are other people who are judges and prophets, who make kings and tear them down, who hear the word of the Lord and deliver it to the people…
…like there are priests and there’s us, playing dress-up at best, wearing robes that our moms made…
…with no authority at all.
But I am confident—I am more than confident—that God has called your name and that God is calling your name.
I am confident—I am more than confident—that God has given you a message to deliver to the world.
I am confident—I am more than confident—that God has give you some work to do.
Because you are priests.
When you were baptized, you were invited into the priesthood. When you claimed that baptism as your own, you accepted that invitation. When you made promises and joined this congregation, you declared yourselves part of this priestly community.
And that means that you have the authority and responsibility to stand before God… to break the bread or pour the wine… to forgive sins and tell people that their sins are forgiven… to offer the blessings and preach the good news… to sanctify the world and tell the world that Christ is the one who sanctifies.
So the question that is sitting in front of you… the question that is written on the inside of your mind… the question that you must answer… is, “What is God calling me to? What is God calling me to say? To do? To be?”
And yes, there might be times when we need to do some discerning. And yes, there might be times when we need to figure out if we’re really hearing God’s voice and God’s word. And yes, there might be times when we need to consider things carefully.
But I hope and pray that we will all be brave enough to stand up and say, “This is how God is calling us, let’s follow.”
And I hope and pray that we will all have the humility to listen and say, “This is how God is calling us, let’s follow.”
And as long as we covenant to discern God’s will for this congregation together—and as long as God calls me to be here—I will do my best to help you be a priestly people, inviting people to Christ’s table, telling people about God’s grace, and being blessings to each other and the world.
And, together, as priests and pastors, we’ll nurture God’s kingdom wherever we find it. Until, by the grace of God, it fills this whole world.