Pastor Adrianne Meier
16 July 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
You’re Not Okay Enough, And That’s Okay
1 Samuel 2:12-17; 22-25
Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the LORD or for the duties of the priests to the people. When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, and he would thrust it into the pan, kettle, caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the one who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw.” And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first and then take whatever you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now; if not, I will take it by force.” Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for they treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt.
Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad. If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the LORD, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can make intercession?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to kill them.
I am very bad with time. Even though I was always pretty good at math in school, I was never good at that algebra problem where a train leaves New York and a train leaves San Francisco only to collide in Kansas later in the day, and I’m supposed to figure out what time that was. There are so many factors to consider—time zones, and whether or not the New York train parks on the tracks for a day in the Midwest. Maybe I’m not good at time because growing up however many decades ago in the Hoosier state we didn’t do any *ahem* ridiculous time changing.
Of course, when I say I am bad with time, I really mean I struggle to estimate how much time a task will take,how long it will take to travel to my next appointment, how far I am from home at the end of the day.Apparently, psychologists call this the planning fallacy, and we’re all guilty of it. We’re better at predicting how long other people will take to do a task than how long we ourselves will take.
Human beings are bad at a lot of things like this. We’re bad at guessing whether people like us or not. We’re really bad at probability and guessing in general. And, I think, we’re bad at identifying evil. The problem,according to the late scholar, theologian, and activist Walter Wink, is that we have been so conformed to this world, to the systems that perpetuate evil, that we often “know no other reality; [we] believe that this oppressive arrangement is the nature of things.” And the powers that benefit from this arrangement convince us “that the alternatives are worse: anarchy, chaos, terrorism.” Whether or not we miss it altogether or ignore it completely, we participate in this problem by becoming so busy self-justifying, saying to ourselves that we’re not that bad in the grand scheme of things, that we fail to notice our complicity in systems that oppress our neighbor. It is the work of a faithful life to wake up to this arrangement, to stop trying to justify ourselves, and then to follow Jesus in lives lived generously.
Today’s readings are filled with people who are pretty sure they’re either not that bad or glorious okay enough.Which is to say the readings are filled with people who are pretty much me. Maybe you, too, but I won’t speak for you. The NRSV translation that we use in worship makes the sons of Eli sound pretty terrible, calling them scoundrels, but, in Hebrew, it says something which feels, to me, much more mild: “they were worthless because they did not know the Lord.” When I read about the terrible things they do because they don’t know—or care—much about God, it is easy to reconstruct their self-justification. In brief, they take the meat God’s people intend to sacrifice before it is actually sacrificed. They probably said, “Look, by the time you bring the sacrifice to the tabernacle, you’re done with it. Who cares how the meat is cooked. It is coming to the priests’ families eventually, so let us just take it now when we can roast it into deliciousness. You’re done with it now,this is good enough. Let us have it.” Eventually, unfortunately, that devolves into threats of force. Similarly, God devolves from frustrated, to upset, to murderous, apparently. And, to be honest, I don’t know what to do with God’s intent to kill the sons of Eli. I want to get God off the hook and blame the author of First Samuel, because it is so much easier to call these people so evil even God doesn’t like them, than to paint them as complicated people, burdened with a call that they do not want and lives that have become meaningless to them. And, if I am really honest about my own heart, I know people like this, people so frustrating and so evil, I want God to hate them, too! But I do want to take Scripture seriously in what it says about God. I know I am tangled up in knots, but I also know that I am because I believe God is love, and I am uncompromising on that point. All I can do is trust that, in time, God will untangle this knot for me, too.
But I digress. The sons of Eli justified their actions by saying they weren’t that bad, the meat was already going to be sacrificed, they were just taking it early. On the other side of the same coin, the Rich Young Many is sure that he’s okay enough. But just to make sure, he’s shown up to ask a popular itinerant teacher a question. I imagine Jesus is not the first sage that man has asked. HIs question seems to obvious, what one good deed,what one epic checkbox can be his ticket into heaven? Interestingly, like the sons of Eli, he also doesn’t seem to know God. “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus asks, “There is only one who is good.” When Jesus lists off the commandments, he omits all the ones that have to do with God, as if he already knows this man doesn’t know God.
We all justify ourselves all the time. But self-justification makes us indifferent to the evil around us. Evil is in the air, but when we didn’t smell the smoke, we did nothing about it. It is in our likes and rivers, but as long as the dying fish turn up on our neighbor’s shore, we do nothing. Evil is in our interactions with one another, but we are never to blame for our neighbor’s deteriorating mental health. It is in the words broadcast 24 hours a dayurging us to be afraid of one another, to pick up our weapons, to stock up on at least some of what we need in an emergency. It is in what we keep in duplicate, triplicate, just in case— as if holding on to something, anything, will keep tragedy from taking up residence in our lives, and as if our neighbor needs nothing we have kept for ourselves. We keep ourselves just removed enough from the problems of this world so we can’t really be to blame. It’s always the miners, the farmers, the architects, the unions, the industries, the academics, the other political party. Self-justification makes us indifferent to evil.
We have to stop—for just a minute—justifying our complicity in the system. Self-justification gets us nowhere. It only shows our ignorance—how we do not know God: God who is good, God who is love, the God who justifies the sinner by grace through faith. When we know God in this way, we won’t come to Jesus asking for the one magical good deed that will make up for every silence, every time we looked away. And instead we will ask, amid all the pain we human beings have caused each other, and so many actions and inactions that have surely broken the heart of God, “Who then can be saved?”
Self-justification gets us nowhere, but justification by grace through faith? Ah. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Look, Beloved, the only way out of this tangle of knots we’ve found ourselves in is to follow in the way of Jesus who generously gave of himself for our sakes and in solidarity with our suffering. In this way, generosity is not a single action, one winning lottery ticket into heaven, but it is a way of being that pours out, not from our self-justification, but from lives that have been forgiven, from the ways we have been freed from ignorance and indifference. If you want life, Jesus says, preserve your neighbor’s. If you desire fidelity in relationships, be faithful yourself. If you wish to have enough, do not take what you do not need. If you want to protect your good name, then say nothing bad about your neighbor’s. If you want to be respected by your children, respect your own parents. And be self-compassionate, not self-justifying, speaking and acting toward yourself with as much compassion as your afford for others on your best day.
And if that still doesn’t feel like enough for you, give it away, give it away, give it all away now. Take up a life marked not by hoarding and acquiring, not by justifying what you have and hold, but by giving generously and as often as you can. Amen.