A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 17 January 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20
Christianity depends on a fundamental conviction that doesn’t appear in the creeds and is impossible to prove. But it’s simply put: there is another reality besides the one we’re in, and it’s in fact more real than the one we’re in. I usually call that reality essence, and the one we’re in existence. But whatever you call it, heaven, the beyond, the spiritual, and whether you think it’s up there, waiting to arrive here, or in some other realm entirely, it’s suffused with God in a way this reality is not.
The crucial point about this other reality is that this existence doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without it. We spend a lot of energy speculating on the mysteries of our existence. We wonder why there is suffering. We’re confused and sometimes terrified at the fact that we die. We’re perplexed that God is so eager to be in relationship with is, but somehow seems so out of reach. Meanwhile there are some who urge us to be content with the universe as it is – big bang, evolution, natural selection and the circle of birth and death, and not seek more than that. But to different degrees, the answers to all these quandaries and ponderings lie in what I call essence – the reality beyond this one that’s truer than this one. All our railing against God at what’s wrong with the world, all our fury that this is such an imperfect existence – all of that matters much less if there’s another reality that turns transitory life into eternal life, flawed relationships into fulfilled ones, fear and suspicion into trust and love.
Emmanuel Suhard was a complex man, a writer and priest who became Archbishop of Paris in 1940 and thereafter a Cardinal. In his book Priests Among Men he wrote some words that crystallise the importance of the conviction about another realm. He says, ‘To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.’ Notice the two-edged character of this statement. It means a life that to most observers makes no sense. That means giving up the ways existence rewards lives that make a lot of sense – income, security, recognition, acclaim, awards, legacy. But it also means a life that in the light of God, in the timeframe and perspective of essence, makes perfect sense. We could call it living God’s future now.
The Old Testament isn’t too interested in the word witness. It has its own word for living a life that makes no sense if God does not exist. That word is prophet. Today’s Old Testament lesson introduces us to a paradoxical figure called Samuel; from whom I get my own name. He’s paradoxical because his ministry marks the great transition from Israel’s hand-to-mouth occupation of the Promised Land, with a series of charismatic leaders known as judges, to a more ordered society under the leadership of a king. Eventually this also involved a transition from God’s presence being embodied in the ark of the covenant, kept in a provisional tent, to its installation in the magnificent Jerusalem temple. The paradox is that Samuel wasn’t at all sure these two celebrated transitions were such a good idea. And if we ponder Cardinal Suhard’s words, we can understand why. Samuel saw that Israel was becoming like other nations – no longer directly dependent on the word of God but surrounded by institutions, procedures and traditions that made a whole lot of sense whether or not God existed. Today we would perhaps call them sustainability, or perhaps in America we’d call them democracy.
The First Book of Samuel begins with Hannah, who prays for a child and promises that, if she’s given one, he will be given back to the Lord. When her wish is granted, she sings a beautiful song of what God has done, including these half-familiar words: ‘The Lord raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.’ Then we meet Samuel himself, as a boy, abiding in the temple with Eli, the priest. What does all this remind you of? The whole story is reworked in the early chapters of the gospels, where Mary sings of putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble and meek, and where the boy Jesus is found in the temple talking with some teachers who look like updated versions of Eli. And then the penny drops. Who was the one who above and beyond all others, lived in such a way that made no sense if God did not exist? At the risk of sounding like a caricature of a Sunday School class, the answer’s Jesus.
And that gives us our definition of a prophet. A prophet is someone who lives in such a way that their life would not make sense if God did not exist; and at the same time, a prophet points to Jesus. The classic portrayal of such a life and such a pointing is John the Baptist. The locusts and wild honey make no sense unless he’s telling the world he’s the promised Elijah who was expected to return before the Messiah appeared; and if you look at countless paintings of Jesus and John together, you’ll invariably see John in some manner pointing to Jesus.
How do we go about becoming this kind of a prophet? I’m going to suggest there are three stages. The first is listening to God. For some people contemplative prayer is life’s centre – precisely where our lives make no sense if God does not exist. We simply listen. But that’s not the only way to listen. Listening means both studying wise commentary on world events, but also knowing when to put that commentary aside and listen to scripture, listen to God speaking in the mouths of those who don’t conventionally get a hearing, listen to the wisdom of other centuries. The story of Samuel and Eli is about listening to a child. Being a prophet isn’t firstly about what we say but who we listen to.
Then, second, it’s about saying simple things. Long ago when I was training for ordination my college went through a traumatic experience. The mental condition of the person in the room next to mine gradually spiralled downwards. If I’d had more experience, I’d have recognised the signs of profound bipolar disorder. The room was trashed. Other warning signs were expressed. We all chose to pretend it wasn’t happening. One night the Archbishop of York came to supper. My neighbour chose the beginning of the meal suddenly to upset all the tables, food flying everywhere, those of us trying to bring restraint aquaplaning across the floor in slapstick tragedy. I helped carry my neighbour to the principal’s office to await an ambulance. Ten minutes later I returned to the refectory. It was clear as I sat down at the Archbishop’s table that no one had said a word in the ten minutes I’d been away. Then, breaking the weight of silence, the Archbishop said, ‘One rather wonders if such a person were a suitable candidate for ordination.’ I immediately thought what a stupid thing to say. But it wasn’t stupid. It was exactly what none of us had faced up to in the preceding months. Someone had to say it; and until they did, nothing could happen. The Archbishop wasn’t wearing camel’s hair, and didn’t have an Ayatollah beard; but he was a prophet that day. He simply spoke the truth.
Then third, it’s about doing simple things, often things with wider reference. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee in September 2016 during the national anthem before a San Francisco 49ers American football game, he made the perfect prophetic gesture. Kaepernick was baptised Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and attends a Baptist church. Like Jesus riding a donkey rather than a horse into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it’s absurd to receive it as a hostile statement. How could kneeling before flag and anthem be anything other than respectful of the values on which America believes itself to be founded? It’s the fact that kneeling in submission is exactly what African Americans had to do as slaves for 300 years that makes the gesture prophetic and poignant. Taking the knee is an awesome gesture, because it says, ‘You’ve made us subservient, despite the higher values you say our country is founded on. Now let’s see those higher values.’ Since the death of George Floyd four years later, now the whole world understands what it means to take a knee: to do a simple thing with wider significance. To be a prophet.
But here’s the point about Colin Kaepernick. When he knelt in complaint, he was taking the devotional practice of personal prayer and making it a public statement of political protest. He was saying Christianity isn’t simply about personal piety and individual salvation: it’s about portraying a new society and organising communities to advance that vision. And that’s where the three dimensions of prophecy – choosing who to listen to, saying the thing no one’s saying, and making gestures with wider significance – all come together. The way to change the world isn’t to become a prophet. It’s to join a prophetic community. Everyone knows the words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ But not everyone hears those words and then joins such a community. Christians have a word for a community of prophetic action: we call it church. To be a church does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that your life would not make sense if God did not exist.
For centuries we’ve built churches with spires. A spire is a way of pointing a finger to heaven – to remind people that there’s another reality, more real than this one. The challenge for the church is to make its life as prophetic as its buildings. It’s to listen, speak and act in ways that make no sense if God does not exist. And if we’re short of ideas, we simply have Jesus, whose every gesture was a prophetic statement of another reality truer than this one. But let’s not make the two mistakes embedded in the story of Samuel. Let’s not imagine that our calling as a small group of thoughtful, committed, organised citizens is to be in charge: Samuel warned that the ministry of a prophet would be ruined by trying to become a king. And let’s not suppose that one inspired prophet will do the job for us. It’s not about raising up unique individuals; it’s about becoming a prophetic community.
That’s what we’re called to be. We’ve made a start. Let’s get busy.