A Sermon Preached at the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant
in Wilmington, Delaware
on January 17, 2021
By the Rev. Dr. Thomas C. Davis
President of the Interfaith Veterans’ Workgroup
Good morning, Covenant friends and online visitors. When I signed up for preaching today — that was more than a month ago — I had no idea that the lectionary’s Hebrew scripture reading today would be so appropriate for current events. And I do mean very current events, since January the 6th.
In 1 Samuel 3 we’re presented with a story about speaking truth to power. A consecrated child, Samuel, is awakened by a call from God and moved to speak truth to his teacher and mentor, Eli, about God’s displeasure over Eli’s failure to sufficiently hold his two wayward sons accountable for their misdeeds.
Here are some background details that will help you understand the story better:
There was a barren woman named Hannah who went to Eli years earlier, pleading with him to pray to God to give her a son. She promised that if she were so blessed, she would dedicate the child to God to become a priest. Eli did pray her request, and she bore a son, whom she named Samuel.
While Samuel was still a young boy she brought him to Eli, fulfilling her promise to dedicate him to God. We can surmise that the boy was an earnest student who held his mentor, Eli, in the highest regard. Then, the story reports that Samuel hears a voice one night calling him. Thinking it was Eli who had summoned him, Samuel goes to Eli asking him what he wanted. But Eli says no, it wasn’t he who had called. It must be the voice of God, he tells Samuel. Go back to sleep, he says, and if the voice calls again, obey it! (Rather than resist an incriminating truth coming to light, it seems Eli may already have been suffering from a guilty conscience).
The voice does call again, and it reveals that Eli had failed to do his parental duty to correct the reprehensible behavior of his two wayward sons. We find some details about them in the book of Judges. The sons, Hophni and Phinehas were also priests, and they were fornicating with women who came to temple to worship. They were also stealing for themselves prime cuts of meat that had been entrusted to them for making burnt offerings to God. So, you could say they were stealing from God.
Our reading doesn’t tell the end of this story about speaking truth to power and insisting on accountability for moral transgressions. Do you hear why this reading is so appropriate to events of recent days? Philistines kill Hophi and Phinehas in a battle that their side might have been expected to win. Hearing of their deaths, Eli falls backward and breaks his neck and dies.
Samuel, Eli’s faithful protege, then becomes the high priest, and a moral leader of the people of Israel, a judge who presides in disputes and leads them in just ways. Samuel needs help in this task, so he deputizes his two sons, Joel and Abijah to be judges. But alas, they too, like the sons of Eli, prove to be corrupt. The people lose faith in them. They then insist that Samuel select someone to be their king. Enough with judges. They want a king!
This is dangerous, Samuel warns them. A king will take advantage of you. You don’t know what you’re asking for. But they insist, and Samuel finally relents, crowning Saul as their king. Saul proves to be morally corrupt too, and once again Samuel speaks truth to power, shifting his support to David, a shepherd boy turned resistance fighter who seems quite the righteous hero at first. But he too will eventually prove corrupt.
I think I needn’t carry on this saga much further. The Hebrew scriptures are a long account of very ordinary people called again and again by divine spirit to speak truth to power, and then stand resolutely, obeying a duty of conscience, to hold their leaders morally accountable before God. To stand resolutely, I say, regardless of likely harmful consequences to their own safety or their social standing. We have seen that ancient story play out once again in recent days.
So, those who have ears to hear, may you hear. Those souls who, like Samuel, may have awakened in the night to stirrings of conscience, let’s listen to what the Lord has to say to us about speaking truth to power. What do we mean by truth?
Many of our leaders, not just the president, but others too, have come to equate truth with whatever is promulgated by an authority, rather than what can be investigated and massaged by critical inquiry and found plausible because it corresponds to what is best supported by facts. That is one kind of truth, which the Greek philosophers labeled truth by correspondence. If what you say corresponds to the way things really are, judged by a careful and critical examination, then you have uttered a truth. It is a provisional truth, because it depends on our understanding of what is happening in the world, and that may change as we get more information. This truth by correspondence is our best orientation for any moment. It’s like a navigator’s fix by dead reckoning. It may not be precisely accurate, but it will do for keeping us safely on course.
We have seen that respect for this kind of truth is critically important for a democracy. Without a respect for fact finding, and fashioning our policies in accord with what is really happening in the world, we shall be adrift on stormy seas like a ship without a rudder, and a crew murderously disputatious, ready to cast overboard anyone who challenges them to account for their desperate behaviors.
I have said that truth by correspondence is one kind of truth, and it is very, very important to speak that kind of truth to power. In addition, there is another kind of truth, though. Let me call it personal truth, the kind of truth that isn’t determined so much by looking outward, but rather, looking inward. It’s the kind of truth that one feels way down deep, and perhaps eventually comes to recognize after a long and gradual awakening.
Here let me get personal. During the last ten days I was made aware of a personal truth of mine by the return to me of a piece of my history. I received a package from Sally, my banjo picking sister, containing a small reel to reel tape. She reported by email that she had found the tape among music recordings which she and her husband, Mark, had made over several decades. The tape contains two messages which I had sent to my father from Vietnam. She thought I might like to listen to it.
Well, you bet! I’m sorry now that I don’t have more from that most important year of my life, 1970, the year I met the spirit of Jesus in the midst of war. When I came home I asked my wife, Alice, to burn all the letters I had sent to her. I was so exhausted, disgusted, and ashamed of what I had gone through! I wanted no reminders it. So she did. She burned them all. Consequently, I thought all that history had been erased.
I wish I could have seen ahead by about forty years, for now I’m engaged in helping veterans digest their war experiences, to weave them somehow into who they are presently, so that they can bring their whole being into their present devotions. In short, to be who they truly are, without shame. That’s what it’s like to awaken to one’s personal truth.
Well, imagine my deep gratitude for this gift by which I heard my voice from more than 50 years ago! I could tell it was me speaking. It sounded like me, sort of, except that the tone was constrained, tight. I was leaving stuff out, you see, as loved ones do in a theater of war, not wanting to upset the folks back home. I told my dad some pleasant stories which I had totally forgotten. And this is very interesting: I told him that I was looking into applying to a graduate program in the philosophy of religion. I recorded that tape on my birthday in late February, having spent scarcely two months in country. In April, after three days of solitude and prayer, I had a dramatic experience of the presence of the spirit of Jesus. His quiet and powerful spirit dispelled my fears of dying or being captured, and filled me with the deepest, marvelous joy! That day in April marked my rebirth. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “those who are in Christ are a new creation. The past is over and gone; behold the new has come.” It felt like that to me, the beginning of a journey to live into who I truly am now, an interfaith peacemaker. But the recording revealed to me that April wasn’t really the beginning of that journey. For already in February the spirit of Jesus was at work in me, nudging me toward my personal truth.
When the end of my tour arrived I had to file a report to my commanding officer. All that year the U.S. had been turning boats over to the South Vietnamese navy under Nixon’s “Vietnamization program”. Senior officers wanted to report to their seniors that all was going well. If you report what your boss wants to hear you’re likely to get promoted. But all was not going well, not at all, and I wasn’t willing to lie about that to help my commanding officer sugar coat the facts. So, I wrote a very critical report. I was doing my best to speak truth as I saw it. I’m not boasting about that. There was a growing number of soldiers and sailors doing likewise. It takes some courage to speak truth to power. Having company in the effort helps to boost one’s courage.
But what principally gives a person the courage to speak truth to power? Not just support from like minded folk, because sometimes there aren’t any. Sometimes one is moved to speak out completely alone, with no promises of support, and a great likelihood of recrimination. Whence comes that courage? I think it comes from adherence to a personal truth, to the realization that one must speak out now, or else give up being who one truly is. In other works, it’s a matter of deep, deep conscience.
Since the attack on our Capitol you have heard many news analysts rightfully declare that our nation now faces a huge task of reconciliation, because a change of leadership will not erase the simmering quarrels which date from our Civil War and just recently erupted in appalling violence. Coming to trust truth again, truth grounded in facts rather than a blind appeal to authority, will require considerable education, and patient practice of critical and charitable thinking.
But perhaps even more important in this effort toward a national reconciliation will be the challenge to each of us to identify our personal truths. Why? Because, as the Bible saga from this morning shows, each generation begets new corruption, and there will be need again and again to speak truth to power. And since the courage to speak truth to power derives from a foundation of personal truth, each follower of Jesus needs to examine himself or herself asking “Who am I, really?” What do I stand for, ultimately? What am I willing to give up all for, even die for?
How does one find one’s personal truth? Praying and journal keeping help, certainly. But the possibility still remains that one can be terribly mistaken along the way, sometimes owing to mental illness, or just plain temptation to follow an easy path rather than a straight and narrow one. How does one find one’s personal truth without getting lost?
Well, church, it helps to have trustworthy guides. Elders, that’s one of your duties, to give spiritual guidance, to help seekers find their personal truths, their best angels, their God selves.
The Quakers have something called a clearness committee. If, like Samuel, you hear a call to do something, and you wonder whether it’s trustworthy or not, a genuine call from God, or a voice leading you astray, you name for the meeting three persons who know you very well, and whom you trust to give you honest feedback about what they hear you saying, and see you doing. They make no judgments. They just give you honest feedback. You ponder that feedback deeply, with prayer. Then you make the decision about whether you’re closer to your personal truth, that is, who you really are, or not. And your journey may continue, until you can say with blessed assurance, yes, this is who I am, this is who God wants me to be, this is what I care for ultimately. This is what I am willing to die for if necessary.
This, fellow Americans, is how we shall uphold the truth in our nation during these volcanic times. It’s not an easy fix. It will require courage, stamina, and for us Christians, abiding faith in the spirit of the risen Jesus. The gospel writer, John, says “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” He’s not talking about truth found in facts, although that’s important. He’s talking about personal truth, and he’s talking about following the model of our Lord, Jesus, who like many a prophet before him spoke truth to power, and was willing to die as the suffering servant whom God was calling him to be.
God calls each of us to use our varied gifts to love justice, to act mercifully, and to walk humbly, becoming the glorious selves whom God foreknows us already to be. May it be so. Amen!