1 Samuel 3:1-20
3 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. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the 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. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and 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. 6The 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.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The 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. 9Therefore 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. 10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Growing up, we are lucky if we get the chance to have an “Eli” in our lives. Unlike regular parents, our spiritual parents get to praise us and offer us advice without all the day to day nagging. And even when they do have to get on to us about something we’re far more likely to listen because we know that our spiritual parents have no obligation to us. They choose to be our mentors, our teachers, our coaches - and in doing so they become our heroes.
Samuel was a toddler when his mother Hannah left him with Eli. Eli already had sons but he willingly took Samuel into his fold, teaching him the ways of the priesthood. So I’m sure in Samuel’s eyes, Eli was a hero. And if we only read the verses of the story Emmet has shared with us now, 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Eli remains a hero: the one who humbly and patiently guides Samuel to hear the voice of the Lord.
But as we all know — editorial decisions can make all the difference in how a story is told. What we choose to include and what we leave on the cutting room floor can shape a history and all that comes after it. The truths we come to believe about what it means to carry on the legacy of our heroes have everything to do with how much of their stories we choose to tell.
For instance, earlier this week when a friend posted a picture of a page from her 4th graders social studies textbook. A heading at the bottom of the page caught my eye: Emma Sansom: Young Heroine. I could see the post had created a lot of buzz so before I read the comments I looked up Emma for myself. I learned that:
The Sansom family farm was located in the Gadsden area of North Alabama. Daughter Emma Sansom was 16 years old the night troops came through town only to find that the bridge they intended to cross had been set on fire and burned by enemy forces. The general set off to find another way for the troops to cross. Finding the Sansom home he pleaded for help — they regretfully informed him that the nearest bridge was two miles away — but then young Emma spoke up and said she’d seen cows crossing a shallow spot in the creek not too far away. The general whisked her up on his horse, she led him to the spot, and long story short the next day the general and his men caught up with and captured their enemies.
Emma Sansom: Young Heroine. And what’s not to love about this story: a savvy young farm girl ends up being the key to an entire army’s success! It’s no surprise that a monument was erected in her honor in Gadsden, a school named after her: so that all might remember her story.
But what I’ve told you is a partial story.
And 1 Samuel 3:1-10 is a partial story, an easy story - one appropriate for a children’s bible but perhaps not helpful for the child who is beginning to realize that all heroes have their flaws. And faith is much more complicated than simply saying “I’m listening, Lord” and suddenly having everything figured out.
Emma Sansom’s story becomes more complex when we read on and discover that the general she was helping was Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Also known as “Wizard of the Saddle”, perhaps because of his riding skills but also because he eventually became the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Just one year after his attack on union soldiers in Gadsen, he would take part in what Civil War historians refer to as "one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history”: The Battle of Fort Pillow, where Forrest led his troops to massacred Union soldiers, most of them black soldiers, who had surrendered. Is Emma Sansom a hero? Or is she a girl who got in way over her head - swept up in violence when General Forrest felt his power being threatened?
If we stick to the partial story of 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Eli gets to be the hero. Samuel’s sage spiritual parent. But even his story becomes more complex when we read on past verse ten. Listen now, to 1 Samuel 3:11-20:
11Then 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. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For 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. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli 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.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
One of the heartbreaks of growing up is realizing that our heroes are flawed - some of them quite deeply. For Emma Sansom the flag of the Confederates was enmeshed in the story she’d been handed. These were the good guys. They needed help. She knew how to help them. Although she committed no act of violence herself, she became complicit in her hero’s sin, which was motivated by a desperate desire to maintain a system of racial oppression and white supremacy.
And much like Sansom, Samuel might have struggled to comprehend how his spiritual father, Eli - the dedicated priest, the leader of the temple, could have offended God so deeply. Eli had never led anyone into battle. He did not incite riots, lead an insurgence. Eli was no Nathan Bedford Forrest. But when his sons began using their power and privilege to victimize the vulnerable, “he did not restrain them” the text says.
You see, because Eli had power, his sons (not his spiritual sons, his biological sons) had power. The same way white privilege is passed on biologically the same way economic privilege is passed on generation to generation - Eli’s priestly lineage was passed on to his sons Hophni and Phinehas and all the powers that came with it. Yet by all accounts the boys received none of the humility or wisdom one hopes for in a priest and they used their position to play God. When sacrifices were brought to the temple, Eli’s sons snatched the choice pieces up for themselves. When the urge seized them, they grabbed one of the servant women from the temple gates and did whatever they wanted with her.
Of course, Eli did none of these things. But he also didn’t stop them. Therefore, Eli did not escape God’s judgment. Because he did not use his power to stop his sons from abusing theirs.
Some heroes fall from grace because of their sins. Some, because of their failure to call out the transgressions of others. Both have the eyes of the younger generation, the Samuels and the Emmas, upon them.
I have thought about this so much in the last week and a half.
Presidential impeachments are rare. So rare that when they do happen, it’s only a matter of time before they end up in the pages of textbooks - reminding us that being named to a particular office: president, General, priest or pastor, does not make a hero. It is how that person chooses to exercise their power that makes a hero. It remains to be seen how our current president’s story will be told: some will maintain that he is a hero. Others will say he deserves God’s judgment because of his personal actions, still others will conclude that his real transgression was not stopping the actions of those he had power to influence.
Either way, the eyes of the younger generation are upon us. And their ears will listen to how we tell this story. What we choose to include and what we edit out. Where we choose to begin the story — in 2016 or the 250 years of history that preceded it? How we edit matters.
If there is one thing Eli gets right in this story, it is this: When Samuel reveals that Eli will be held accountable for the role he played in the sins of his children, Eli does not object. In fact he says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Thereby relinquishing his family’s power to make way for Samuel to begin a new chapter in the life of Israel.
Earlier this year a controversy arose over the monument to Emma Sansom that has stood on Broad Street in downtown Gadsden since 1906. It depicts young Emma with her arm raised, finger pointing General Forrest and his men to the creek crossing. In June, a letter to the Gadsden City Council was written. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I share some selections with you today:
“We are descendants of Emma Sansom’s family and current or former members of the Gadsden community. We add our voices to the call to remove the statue at the head of Broad Street commemorating Sansom and Ku Klux Klan leader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The monument was erected to enforce white supremacy in Gadsden, which we abhor and lament. The only defensible action today is to remove the statue.
What motivated the white people of Gadsden to erect this monument to Sansom and Forrest is just one part of a larger project to retrench white rule and eliminate Black political freedom…
Gadsden’s population today is more than one-third Black people. What are we doing with a monument that celebrates an achievement meant to keep a third of our neighbors in bondage?… Think beyond your personal experience and towards the whole of the Gadsden community. Can we fulfill our potential as a beloved community if more than one-third of our neighbors are daily reminded that the town celebrates a time when their relatives were enslaved?
If we are silent, we are complicit in the ongoing injustice against Black people. As Emma Sansom’s nieces and nephews, the best first step we can take to abolish the stain of white supremacy in Gadsden is to remove this symbol of the enslaving power that once ruled this land…
The promise of a democratic society, where all are created equal, lies after the statue’s shadow over Broad Street has faded. Remove the statue, and let’s get to work on building a beloved community in Gadsden and in the United States.”
The letter is signed by thirteen of Emma Sansom’s descendants.
Sometimes the heroes come in the form of parents (spiritual or biological), sometimes heroes are presidents, priest and pastors, coaches and teachers. But sometimes the heroes are the younger generations who can see the greater context, dig up the pieces of history that got left on the cutting room floor. They take note of the humility of Eli, who realized his complicity in his family’s actions and accepted responsibility and consequences. And sometimes, in a moment of honesty, they can find the courage to confess, repent, and seek justice and reconciliation.
Our world does not need heroes who are perfect. But they do need leaders that embody Eli’s humility, willing to admit their failures and empower young people to listen for the call of God, to the story of the victims, and own the consequences of abuses of power. And we, the church, need to become comfortable telling the full story in all its complexities, raising up leaders who seek God above all, and ask good questions, admit fault, and seek a better way toward the beloved community God is longing for us to build.
May it be so. Amen.