The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B.
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore 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, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” [Then the Lord said to Samuel, “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 fulfill 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 forever, 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 forever.”
Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “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. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.]1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)
I made a terrible mistake the other day. I was reading the local newspaper online and scrolled too far on the article. In my carelessness I fell into the cesspool that lurks at the bottom of most webpages, beyond the wall of banner advertisements, the nearly illegible author credentials, the trap “share on social media” buttons. I crossed into a land of desolation and destruction. A land of fire and fury, where the tormented ceaselessly jab each other with pitchforks and condescending grammar advice. A place that rightfully should have a gate at the top reading “Abandon all Hope ye who enter here”. A place that is most threatening to the peace of any good Christian soul, and if recent events are any indication, the very peace of the world itself: The comment section.
My friends I confess to you that I did not do what any pious and prudent Christian would do should they find themselves in such a place of foul and beguiling temptation. I did not flee with expedience to a new tab, nor alt+f4 to my desktop and immediately begin reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I was so foolish as to not even have the Baptismal Covenant open with incense within arm’s reach to purify the miasma of wickedness and safeguard my soul by remembering to “respect the dignity of every human being”. No, my brothers and sisters, instead of all these safeguards, I wandered into the wilderness. In an article regarding a minor action by the city council to explore new lane patterns with the hopes of alleviating traffic, I read the comment section.
It went about as well as one would expect. Within moments, the “discussion” had devolved into name calling, unsubstantiated claims, lamentations that lives would be ruined by the change in traffic flow, citations leading to conspiracy theory webpages, and most commonly and disheartening of all, the cry from all participants: “People like you are what’s wrong with this country”.
Only after this sad revelation did I remember to close the page. Normally I would try to forget the negativity and move on with my browsing, but I could not escape it. It seems that no matter where we turn there is a comment section. What was once regulated to obscure tech forums has crept its way into all corners of the web, and even spilled over into the physical world. Almost every webpage has a comment section, or their offspring, reviews and links to external social media. But why? Any experienced web user knows to generally ignore the comments, everyone laments the division and vitriolic hatred that live in the comments, so why are they everywhere? Why keep something around that is clearly so toxic?
It turns out that comment sections are as old as the internet itself, in the ancient days when most pages were simply forums and chat rooms for people to connect by shared interests. They began appearing on official media websites as an optimistic democratization of information. They were intended to be a way for journalists, tech enthusiasts, and companies to connect with their audiences. In a cruel irony from their present state, they were meant to bring people together. How then, did they become such terrible places? What changed?
Other than the fact that comment sections started appearing everywhere on the web, since they are merely places for people to speak, they did not change. We did. As to the question why comment sections started appearing on every website, from news outlets to your dentist’s homepage, is because they are the simplest digital form of a very ancient idea: a call to action.
There are two ways that you are probably familiar with a call to action, even if you’ve never heard the term. The first is another annoyance in modern web browsing, where every page and video begins and ends with “Like!”, “Share!”, “Subscribe!”, and of course “Leave a comment!”. This kind of call to action is designed with monetary concerns: building a brand, gaming metrics and algorithms, but above all promoting a thing called “engagement”. Engagement is a very rare and valuable thing online. Having any kind of interaction that was caused by a real human doing something with what was presented online, is so valuable that it can mean the difference between large sponsorship checks or obscurity. Again ironically, a place that was designed to foster human connection is so lacking in genuine human connection that the smallest task, hitting a “like” button, leaving a comment, regardless of the content of said comment, is enough to show sponsors and donors that you are not simply screaming into the void.
The other call to action that is also intimately familiar come from stories like the ones in our readings. Samuel hears a voice in the darkness calling his name, after some instruction from his teacher, he hears and understands that it is God calling him to be a prophet. An interesting detail from the beginning of the reading is the comment from the narrator describing Samuel’s times, “the Word of the Lord was rare in those days”. That is an odd observation considering that Samuel’s teacher, Eli, was considered a prophet. However, if we remember a bit more of the context of Samuel’s time, we can see how the author is telling us that the Word of the Lord was rare because the nation and its leaders were mired in corruption, self-interest, and division.
Samuel lived at a time when Israel was ruled by priest-judges. In fact, Samuel is the last Judge to rule Israel. If you read the book of Judges, which is meant to cover this time period, it tells a story of cyclical degradation. The people are stuck in this cycle of faithlessness followed by oppression, then calling out for God to rescue them, God raising a leader to rescue them, then once free forgetting God and returning to faithlessness. Each time the cycle repeats it gets worse and worse. God’s calling of Samuel is not anything new, as there have been many prophets and judges before Samuel, as there will be that come afterward. But it is telling that the Word of the Lord was so rare in those days that unlike other prophets in the Bible, Samuel doesn’t even recognize that God is speaking to him without the instruction of his teacher Eli. Though more realistically, it wasn’t that the Word of the Lord was rare, but that there was no one listening. God may not be chasing sponsorship or donor money, but it seems that Samuel’s days were so full of faithlessness and division that even God preferred to make a call to action than continue to call out into the void.
God’s instructions to Samuel are far from comforting. Like many Prophets and Judges that God called, because the people were so unable to hear His voice, the news was not good. Though most painfully, the first prophecy Samuel was called to give was to the kindly Eli. Eli’s sons were corrupt, blaspheming God and abusing their power for their own desires. Though Eli was a good and faithful servant, God, through Samuel, tells Eli that his sons will not inherit their faither’s role of Priest-Judge, because they have turned away from God, they will not rule Israel, and Eli’s family name will be gone after their deaths. What is remarkable about this news is that not only does Samuel have the courage to deliver it, but how well Eli takes it, “It is the LORD, let Him do what seems good to Him”.
It is this moment that shows us the difference between God’s call to action and the calls to action from the world; and what might very well heal us as a people in a land divided. The calls to action we see in the world, the comment sections, the empty approvals, the desire for constant validation, the reason they have become so toxic and hurtful to our community is that no one cares about the quality of the discussion. They don’t bother to hire moderators, or foster fact-checking, or even enforce basic manners, because those calls to action are about quantity. They are gaming systems and algorithms, and for all the talk of creating “community engagement”, they only care that it improves metrics rather than lives. God calls us to something much more challenging, but what ultimately leads us back to Him. God calls us to have the courage to speak the truth, but equally important, to love those whom we are speaking to. God is not an absentee moderator who lets things degrade into chaos so long as the numbers are good. God expects more out of us, and much like Samuel’s prophecy to Eli, at the moment, there is some bad news.
The bad news is that we are in such a state of faithlessness, corruption, and division that returning to justice and righteousness is not going to be easy, nor will it be swift. We are called to listen to God like Samuel and Eli. It will take real sacrifice to return to the LORD. We will first have to sacrifice our desire for validation and group think. It is time to shift our focus from “me and mine” to “ours”. Like it or not, we are all neighbors, we are all called by God. Not only are we called to love our neighbors, we are stuck together, and shifting to a community mindset is the only way we are going to survive. We have to be willing to give up some of our own idols and comforts for the sake of the greater good. It will not be an easy nor pleasant task, as too many of us benefit from casting aside our neighbor.
But the Good news is this. The Word of the Lord is not rare in our times, but calling us constantly to prophesize. We have within our hands the means of communication and community that Samuel and Eli could never have dreamed of. Not only do we have the means, more importantly we have the examples of Samuel, Eli, Nathanael, and Christ, if we can learn to cast down our idols of tribalism, monetization, and self-righteousness, we can show the world that we really are neighbors. Even better we can start in even the smallest ways. The next time you find yourself in that heated debate, that impossible ultimatum, that flame war in a comment section, ask yourself this: Is it more important to be “right”, or to solve the problem? In that moment remember your baptismal covenant to “…strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. God is calling out in the darkness, it is our time to reply: “Speak LORD, for your servant is listening” Amen.