This is the second in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY.
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Faith for the Earth: Are we listening?
Our text this morning is the well-known story of the call of Samuel. Samuel will go on to become one of the great prophets of Israel – a prophet not in the sense of being a fortune-teller who claims to predict the future, but rather a prophet in the sense of being someone so deeply rooted in the love and justice of God that he or she views the world with moral clarity, speaks out against an unjust status quo, and holds up God’s vision of what could be and should be.
I chose this passage because in a sense all of us are called today to become prophets: all of us are called to root ourselves in the love and justice of God, to face and confront the ways in which we and our society have gone astray, and to find ways to proclaim and to bring forth God’s dream of a world in which all people and living beings can thrive. That’s what a prophet does, and God knows we need prophetic voices today in this time of social and ecological emergency.
Scientists are telling us that we are at the brink of catastrophe: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We need to make a decisive change of course toward clean, renewable sources of energy. We need to protect forests and topsoil, rivers and oceans, pollinators and the other living creatures with whom we share this planet, to say nothing of the eco-systems upon which all life depends. And we must do this quickly and notwithstanding the opposition of political and corporate powers that are determined to keep drilling, burning, mining, and extracting for as long as they can – to keep plundering and profiting, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet.
The task before us is daunting, and it brings us to our knees. This is a holy moment, a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning. Will we as a society choose life or will we continue on the path of business as usual, a path that leads to death? At this crossroads, at this moment that is pregnant with both danger and possibility, we must call upon the power of God. For, surely, we need a power beyond ourselves to help us in this grave hour of need. We need a source of holy strength and guidance to give us wisdom and courage and stamina to find a way forward. Yes, we need good policies, we need good legislation and God knows we need good leaders, but we also need to tune our hearts and minds to the divine presence so that we can learn what to do and find the strength to do it.
Today and in each of my homilies this week I’d like to reflect with you on some of the spiritual perspectives and practices which, in this perilous time, can keep us grounded in God’s presence.
So, let’s say a word about listening. That’s where the call of the prophet Samuel begins: with listening. Samuel grew up in a time when God seemed remote and uncommunicative. As the passage says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1). Yet the story tells us that Samuel’s ears are open, and one night, as he is lying down in the temple, he hears God call him by name – and not just once, but three times. After Eli, the priest whom Samuel is serving, explains that it is God who is addressing him, Samuel responds, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”
One of the core characteristics of a prophet is the willingness to listen. Are we listening? To what and to whom are we listening? What is the quality of our listening? It’s easy to listen with half an ear, to look as if we’re paying attention when someone speaks, while actually we’re busy composing our reply. It’s also easy to plant ourselves at the center of what we’re hearing, so that we only listen for confirmation of what we already believe and only for what might be useful to us – never mind the rest. And if I hear something that makes me uncomfortable or that I don’t want to hear, I’m outta here. If the speaker belongs to a different political party, I’m outta here. If the speaker is of a different color or religion, I’m outta here. So many opportunities to close our ears! I’m tuning you out!
I was interested to note that when the lockdown began, many people reported a change in what they heard. City-dwellers were startled by the quiet as traffic abated and as fewer airplanes passed overhead. People heard birdsong, they heard sirens, and in New York City they heard the banging of pots and pans every night as people celebrated healthcare workers. The sounds changed, and people noticed. They listened.
And after George Floyd died and howls of pain and shouts of anger rose up from Black communities, and the cry rose up again that Black Lives Matter, millions of people listened. Millions of white people listened. Surely, we had heard that cry of pain many times before – it’s a cry that has been lifted up for generations, for hundreds of years, in the face of racism – but we white people have hardly listened. Because of what Richard Rohr calls “the unspoken privilege of being white,” we have generally turned away. But not this time – this time, at least for now, it seems that many white people have actually begun to listen – not only to the words, but also to the pain and longing behind the words. When you listen with respect, when you listen with an open heart, when you listen with empathy and an intention to understand – then you are moved to respond. Listening leads to action, and across this country we’re now seeing an unprecedented, multiracial, multigenerational, multisector upsurge against racism. I pray that such listening and responding will deepen and continue in the years ahead.
And how about the Earth? Are we listening to her cries? Just as there is the unspoken privilege of being white, I think there is also the unspoken privilege of being human – a privilege that we like to think exempts us from having to listen to what Scripture calls the “groaning” of “the whole creation” (Romans 8:22). What would it be like to step outdoors and to listen with full attention? What would we hear? The sound of wind, a dog’s bark, a car passing, birds?
With the ear of the heart, would we notice the silence of all the birds that have gone missing? Three billion birds have disappeared in the last 50 years.
With the ear of the heart, might we hear the sound of heavy machinery and chainsaws as tropical forests are felled for beef cattle and palm oil? Might we hear the noise that fills the oceans as energy companies deploy seismic air guns to map the ocean floor for oil and gas? The din in the oceans caused by commerce and offshore drilling is deafening and even outright killing countless sea creatures, large and small. Can we hear it?
With the ear of the heart, might we hear the boom and crack of glaciers as chunks of ice fall into the sea, or the whoosh of rushing water as rivers of ice slide off the Greenland Ice sheet? Last year, Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in a single day. Can we hear it? Are we listening?
A few years ago, I heard a man from Greenland speak. He’s a shaman, a traditional healer and storyteller whose name I can’t pronounce: Angaangaq Angakkorsuak. He tells the story of journeying to the United Nations some years ago to warn the gathered assembly that the Big Ice is melting. He came home pleased – he had done it! He had addressed the world’s leaders and shared this urgent news! His friends replied, “But did they hear you? Did they hear you?”
Are we listening? A prophet listens deeply to what Pope Francis and liberation theologians call “the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor.” I invite us to take as a mantra the words of Samuel and to repeat the phrase inwardly as we go through our day: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
We are listening. We are listening.