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Wordfall

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

June 3, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-20

A Reading from the First Book of Samuel

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.


In part of my time away the week before last I had the privilege of spending five days with a regular gathering with some fellow preachers and working together on our craft, and we met with a preaching professor who workshoped sermons with us until we could preach them not from multiple pages of prewritten paragraphs but from a single page of notes and outlines and diagrams. Which is a process and a goal that I heartily respect though I am not doing it today, because the problem I have is the same problem that every preacher who has a problem with preaching from notes has, which is that we have a fastidious obsession with our words. After all, this is a ministry of words; words are very important to sermons, and preachers get very attached to them. We get very persnickety about them, and I do not believe in my capacity to find the right words again if I leave them behind on paragraphs that do not accompany me to the pulpit. I would mourn for those words left behind because I love them because I am too attached to them right or wrong, for good or ill, in sickness and in health.

This of course does not mean that my words are always right. It simply means that my burden is desperately needing them to be right. Stephen Fry says that a true thing, poorly expressed, becomes a lie, which is a terrible thing to be afraid of but here we are, manuscript firmly in hand. And of course what the manuscript represents is not only that these are the words I’ve chosen to say this morning but also that I have chosen not to say.  Quite a few others lie on the cutting room floor, poorly-tuned adverbs and misbegotten clauses and turns of phrase that went the wrong direction. One of the ironic things about being an obsessive lover of words is that I murder them all the time, that what comes out the first time is never right, and it always has to die, it’s what Anne Lamott calls the Sloppy First Draft although she doesn’t use the word sloppy but words matter. So you write a Sloppy First Draft and then in the name of words you begin a massacre, strike this clause, rewrite this phrase, kill this whole paragraph. By now my hard drive is a vast cemetery of paragraphs summarily executed in the pursuit of the right words, and I am so glad that none of them will ever see the light of day.

Thank God I’m not Samuel, whose words God promises never to let fall to the ground.

You have heard this story before, the boy Samuel who grows up in the temple and then one night realizes with his mentor’s help that God is speaking to him and calling him into the ministry of prophecy which is of course a ministry of words and it seems to me that if you are trying to be a prophet and trying to say something on behalf of God then you will want the right words and you may occasionally need to reconsider a sentence or axe a paragraph but instead  the story goes that God did not let any of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. Which leaves a couple of options. Either Samuel never wrote any sloppy first drafts — which is to say, perhaps Samuel was so gifted at prophecy and with words that everything that ever came out of his mouth or out of his pen was perfect from the first moment, which, I have to say, I find pretty unlikely, and if it’s true, then I just sort of despise him categorically. Or he’s living in a nightmare. Where he can’t cut anything. Any he can’t delete anything. And can never take anything again from the top. And nobody will ever forget whatever bad turn of phrase came off his lips. He’s just a man whose every ill-formed sloppy first draft is out there for the world to see, he’s just a man living with his foot in his mouth and it’s not helping. Because the words keep coming out. And God won’t let any of them go away.

I actually think we have an instinctive sense of what it might feel like to live this way. This past week we had one of those increasingly familiar 24-hour outrage firestorms after comedienne Rosanne Barr said something ugly on Twitter about a former Obama staffer, and then Rosanne promptly lost her job. And Rosanne’s got a long history of saying some particularly hateful and foul stuff and I certainly don’t fault ABC for disassociating itself with her. But of course it also matters that Rosanne didn’t say this at a cocktail party or a pitch meeting; rather, she said this on Twitter, a place where words never fall to the ground, where some database keeps them safe until eternity, for every time and place. And of course I don’t have any sympathy for what she said but also this is the nightmare, this is Samuel’s nightmare, it’s life lived entirely on Twitter, where every half-formed thought, every poor turn of phrase, that all of it gets saved and archived and becomes a matter of the public record. This would my nightmare, that every time I say the wrong thing, that every time I stick my foot in my mouth, that every time I’m inadvertently curt to the guy at the counter or every time some friend catches me in a bad mood or every time something I don’t like comes out under my breath, the nightmare is that all those words still hang around my neck, that they all still go in the record, that none of them fall to the ground, and nobody ever moves on.

I do think that would be the nightmare, but I also don’t think it’s what this scripture says. “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground,” and of course as usual the Hebrew is a bit vague on pronouns and subject-verb agreement. Is God really preventing Samuel’s words from falling? Is Samuel preventing God’s words from falling? But we also know from Jewish law that the words of a prophet are the words of God; they become the words of God when they become true, and when God makes them true. Which means that the promise here is simple: that God will take this boy who hardly knows how to speak and nonetheless put words of truth and prophetic power on his lips and God will ensure that what comes from his mouth is truth no matter how poorly expressed. Which is not to say that Samuel never wrote any sloppy first drafts. It is quite rather the opposite. The promise instead is that somewhere out in the winds of history are precisely Samuel’s sloppy first drafts, bad versions of God’s words, poorly-conceived, written in a bad mood, turns of phrase going the wrong direction, curt words spoken under a prophet’s breath, all the usual suspects, somewhere those sloppy first drafts absolutely exist. But by grace they’ve been lost. By the power of God, they’re gone. They’ve disappeared, precisely so that Samuel’s words could be God’s words, and so that God can prevent God’s words from ever falling to the ground.

This is the very simple good news for today. Particularly I mean it as the good news for those of you about to come forward and be ordained and installed into ministry here as officers of the church, as elders and deacons serving together and following Jesus together in this place. Ours is a ministry of words, of motions composed and amended and perfected, of minutes submitted and edited and read thoroughly, ours is a ministry of prayers read faithfully and prayers spontaneously conceived, ours is a ministry of birthday cards and thank-you notes and after-action reports and minutes for mission, ours is a ministry of words desperately scrounging around for something of God’s word. And you will be tempted, as I am, as we all are, every week, in the search for God’s word, you will be tempted to try to get them perfect. You will want to get them right. You will want, as I do, to know exactly what to say, sitting at the meeting, sitting at the table, sitting at the bedside. You will want to know exactly how. You will want to know, as I want to know, what is the Book of Order citation that perfectly documents the process by which God’s words are carefully edited, strike this clause, rewrite this phrase, kill this whole paragraph. You will want to know the instructions for the massacre that allows God’s words to emerge, perfectly-formed.

But that’s not how it works. The way it works is: we don’t get it right, and God speaks through us anyway. We don’t get it right, and God makes God’s word heard anyway. We don’t get it right, and God still ensures that God’s word does not fall to the ground. There will be times, in this journey together, there will be times in this service together when you wonder at the words on your tongue or the words on your page or the words that have just come out of your mouth — we are all, all of us, constantly and in terribly fallen ways offering up the sloppy first drafts of our contributions to the book of life and ordination does not magically gives us all the right things to say. It is not a manuscript you can follow to the letter. It is rather a promise — for you, as you are. That you are called, as you are. That you have been sent for, as you are. A promise that somewhere in this mess. Somewhere in this wreckage of all the words we’ve kept inside and all the words we should have, somehow in this messy process of never quite knowing what to say and yet still being called to speak, somehow by the grace of God who was the first Word in the beginning and somehow by the power of God who will have the last Word over all creation, that somehow God’s word nevertheless gets through. Somehow, even from our lips, it never touches the ground, and this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.