This sermon was preached at St Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday March 11 and Monday March 12, 2018
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!”[a] 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.”
Some important voices are hard to hear. They might be quiet, confusing, weak, or deceptively ordinary. They might be hard to hear because they speak truths that are painful or messy or threaten our comfort zone or hit a nerve we have been numbing. They might say things we know are true but have turned into items on a self-improvement to-do list we’re currently avoiding. They might say things that seem too big to face.
Last summer, I got an email from a woman I know peripherally – like me, she’s a tenor saxophonist here in NYC – announcing the formation of an advocacy group for women in jazz, and inviting me to join. I skimmed the email with a feeling of vague irritation, marked it unread, and let it sink into the shallow grave that is page two of my inbox.
A couple of months later, I was at an Artist Residency in Washington state with five other artists I hadn’t met before. Upon introduction, one of the artists asked, “Oh, you’re a saxophonist? Maybe you know my daughter? She plays tenor, too.”
Yup. That would be the author of the buried email.
But I was there to write music, to get away from the my normal life and the normal world with all its loud demands, the shouting voices demanding I justify my existence according to the terms of capitalism and adequate woke-ness and the canon of music history and innovation and just the right balance of ambition and cool.
I was there to get away from, for example:
Wow, a chick playing saxophone, that’s hot!
But, how do you make your living?
Are you the singer?
and so on.
So, I did not want to read that email, I did not want to spend my time at this retreat complaining about The Patriarchy, jazz or otherwise… or so I thought.
At this residency, we spent most time on our own, working, but we came together every evening for a meal, and we often lingered, talking into the evening. Six people – at first strangers, and then friends, and then almost like family – at dinner together every night for a month. There were four women, including me, whose ages coincidentally represented each decade from 30s through 60s, a gay man in his 50s, and a straight man in his 70s who we’ll call George.
You know George. We all know George. George talked a lot. Loudly. Frequently over and through other people. While the other artists treated me as a peer despite our age difference, George told me, wow, he could be my grandfather. (But, like, a grandfather who still made some questionable comments about my appearance.) George is a non-fiction writer, and he just didn’t seem to “get” art: he was always trying to justify or reduce his own work and our work to measurable terms of the market.
George was more or less an embodiment of the things I was at the residency to avoid. He was, like the Man, man. Naturally, I want to stick it to the man.
But in that scenario, when I most want to prove myself as a capable individual, everything freezes. There is this opaque, dense, hot feeling in my chest… my vision goes blank. My words stick.
The loudness of the imagined argument between that guy who, explicitly or implicitly, says that I can’t do it or I’m not welcome because I’m a woman and the “me” who wants to prove that women can be anything (even saxophonists!) is so loud that it overwhelms the the “me” who wants to learn/grow/make mistakes/recover/follow my curiosity and, like, make music!
I recently learned that this phenomenon has a name: stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat – that unique form of choking that proves you are exactly the thing you’re trying to prove you’re not. For example, In a Stanford study, a situation was designed to activate a negative stereotype about scholastic ability; the African-American students underperformed. When the same test was done without activating the stereotype, the African American students performed up to their abilities.
When I feel like I’m carrying the weight of my entire gender’s reputation on my back, the load is too heavy to bear. Stereotype threat makes quote-unquote “small” acts of sexual harassment that much more impacting, because they inflame the imagined, internal provoker – they are evidence for the truth of the loud argument that is overshadowing the quieter self.
When I thought about George I had that feeling. A crushing feeling that I guess we can call also call dread: a chronic warning. On guard because my boundaries are being tested, and there’s no way to know if George’s similarities to dangerous men in my past are real or imagined.
I played past incidents over in my mind, and I felt powerless. I should have been stronger: I should have reported, I should have quit, I should have yelled. As the residency progressed, I started to lock my door. I began to have dreams about George: George had a knife to my throat – he was taking away my voice.
But surely I was being paranoid! Over-reacting.
Why was I letting this guy bother me so much? Why did I have to be so sensitive all the time?
I felt those things, but I still didn’t know what I was listening for. Then, it was October, I was back home, and people were tweeting #MeToo. And I was listening.
Listening to women speak despite the twitter trolls, to hear those thousands of small voices clearly telling the truth.
Saying what Le Tigre sings in the song On Guard:
You can comment all day til dark.
You can call me any name you want.
You can look me up and down.
I won’t stop, no, I won’t fall apart.
That’s the truth, and it’s one I needed to hear. I needed to know I wasn’t alone and that I wouldn’t fall apart.
I was listening to other women describe things that have happened to me, but which I hadn’t wanted to name. Wanted to ignore because I didn’t want to be the kind of weak or sensitive person – weak and sensitive woman – who would be affected by something like that. I was listening to other women describe how they hadn’t reported, hadn’t quit, hadn’t yelled. And I understood that I was not alone. I didn’t want to admit that part of me is invested in the status quo, the kind of manipulative power that women are supposed to settle for, along with the way my whiteness and accent and education give me access and perks and safety… Saftey that is contingent on following the Man’s conditions. And they come at much too high a cost.
The many stories of women, the voices of truth were pointing back to the reality that our workplaces, schools, streets, and churches need to change. We can’t build our world on the Man’s terms any more.
In the same way that it took me a while to wake up to the truth that was being spoken, Samuel starts out confused, too. God speaks to Samuel with such an ordinary voice that it takes him a while to realize the magnitude of the situation.
Let’s get a bit of backstory of Samuel.
Samuel is the son of Hannah. Hannah could not have children, but prayed and promised God that if she could finally conceive after so many years of being unable, she would give her child to God as a nazirite consecrated to the service of God. Samuel is that miracle baby, who is raised in the Temple serving the priest Eli.
Eli’s own sons, priests themselves, were no. good. They were eating the sacrificial meat – even insisting that people bring it raw so they could cook it to their taste – and, proving that workplace sexual harassment is hardly new, “they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” Eli is warned, but he can’t seem to stop his sons.
So this word comes from God to Samuel, the nazirite, son of Hannah:
“I have told [Eli] 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.”
Eli is going down.
This message is uncomfortable for Samuel not only because Eli is a sort of father figure, but because he has to tell him what God said. Like, “Good morning Eli, God says you’re f-ed.”
But the truth is, God has a better world in store for Israel than one with priests like those sons of Eli. That is what Hannah trusted in when she gave her son Samuel to God. Hannah was willing to give up even the thing she prayed for because she had such faith in God to provide a different future, a future beyond the constraints she currently felt.
When Hannah gives birth to Samuel, she sings this song:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s.
If we are building on man-made pillars, we are not living in the truth. But, as humans, we are notoriously bad a knowing what’s good for us. Soon after he hears his first prophecy, Samuel gets stuck mediating between with the people of Israel, loudly shouting for a king, and God saying, “Hey! A king is just going to take advantage of you and make your lives miserable.”
But Israel says we don’t care we just want to be NORMAL.
Luckily, God knows how to get our attention, and God doesn’t stop trying.
Hannah’s song foreshadows another song in the Bible, sung by the mother of another, even more miraculous son. Mary, mother of Jesus, sings a very similar song which has become known as the Magnificat. The mighty will fall, the small shall be raised. And that song announces Jesus as a new kind of king who’s supposed to get us out of the earthly king business forever.
The contrast between this new kingdom, the realm of God, and our own narrow views of authority can be seen at the end of Jesus’ life. In his encounter with Pontius Pilate, Jesus encounters the kind of narrow fathoming my pal George was trying to do to art. Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus replies:
“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
How can we listen to Jesus’ voice?
Prayer transforms our dread and our numbness and our pain in a way which can be uncomfortable and even scary, but is revealing, and healing. Repenting – loosing the hold of the world’s flaws – converts listening to allow for the truth to be heard.
In case you were wondering: remember that email? I replied, I joined. I am listening, and I am praying.
Asking God to look where I’m afraid to look. Asking God to be with me while I dare to turn and face what’s been following just behind my peripheral vision. Listening to the quiet voices I’m prone to dismiss.
Here’s what the Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen has to say about prayer:
Prayer is a revolutionary matter because once you begin, you put your entire life in the balance. If you really set about praying, that is, truly enter into the reality of the unseen, you must realize that you are daring to express a most fundamental criticism, a criticism which many are waiting for, but which will be too much for many others.
When you pray, you open yourself to the influence of the Power which has revealed itself as Love.
At St. Lydia’s this season we take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. We’ll write our confessions, and hang them from the branches above.
I invite you to reflect on this question: Where do you have selective hearing around a small voice, inside or outside yourself?
Angela Morris is a saxophonist-composer and other things in Brooklyn via Toronto. Her performance schedule and recordings can be found at angelamorrismusic.com. At St. Lydia’s, Angela coordinates music and liturgy, and curates a monthly experimental performance series called Brackish.
Le Tigre. “On Guard.” Feminist Sweeptakes, Mr. Lady, 2001.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. With Open Hands. Ave Maria Press 1972.