Unstrapping the Weight of Injustice
A sermon based on Samuel 3:1-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 14, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Some men rookies to boating couldn’t get their brand new 22 ft. power boat up to speed in the water. The engine sounded good but the boat was very sluggish. They putted over and docked it at a marina looking for help. A topside check revealed everything in perfect working condition. So one of the marina guys put on snorkel and mask and jumped in the lake to check underneath. He came up choking on water he was laughing so hard. He’d discovered strapped securely in place, the boat’s trailer.1
It’s hard to get a boat going if it’s got all that weight strapped to the hull. That’s true in maritime matters, and metaphorically it’s true. Unnecessary stuff weighing the “hull” of us down, makes it hard to reach the promise of our potential. That’s true of boats, people and nations. I love our nation. There are many great things about it. My favorite by far is that we are founded and grounded on the noble principles of equality and the sanctity of every person’s God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those principles are the very heart, the engine of America. I can’t imagine better foundational principles and goals.
So as a lifelong patriot I cringe at the unprincipled things we’ve strapped to the hull of America that keep us from those goals. On this, Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend, I am, particularly thinking about our history of being slowed down and mired by things that prevent complete equal access to God-given rights for all citizens regardless of how we are born. We are a great nation, with greater potential, but like any country we have had troubling events and sinful conduct including unjust laws.
Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. That is sameness made legal.
Tomorrow at the community Martin Luther King breakfast I will be speaking about how the unfiltered lenses of truth and love make it clear that it is unjust and unloving and immoral that white Americans have full access to God-given rights, but unjustly we have denied the identical access to people of color. To borrow an image from the boat story, our nation’s failure to insure all Americans have the identical access to rights are weighty wrongs strapped to the “hull” of this great nation.
Written and unwritten laws and codes, and even denials and complacency and continuation with the way things are, not only negate the promises of equality, but alienate non-white Americans from accessing their unalienable rights that God made for everyone. In theological terms they disturb the peace, the Shalom, that God desires. In theological terms the history of our nation evidences both wondrous answering of God’s lofty call toward peace, equality and justice, as well as answering man’s baser call to the violence of inequality and injustice.
Today’s lesson can be heard as a metaphor for Israel facing the same type of thing. Samuel hears a call and three times mistakes it as a call toward the power elite, Eli who as a temple leader allowed his sons as priests to abuse and oppress others. (1 Sam 2:12-17, 22). Samuel is being trained in the Temple by Eli when he hears a voice which he first thinks is Eli calling, but Samuel’s being called by God – called to stop the injustices and to put an end to Eli’s ignoring them. When Samuel figures out that God, not man, was calling him, he prayed “Speak for your servant is listening.” And Samuel listens and answers God’s call to stop oppression by speaking truth to power.
And it matters. It causes Eli to allow God’s transformative changes to occur, even encouraging them because he knows the call’s from God. Eli proclaims “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” The prophetic acts in our lesson have no violence, they involve listening and speaking. As The Feasting on the Word commentary puts it “the prophet’s tools remain twofold, the ears and the lips.” 2. The commentary goes on to point out that:
the new beginning requires an exercise of divine justice, not because of evil acts committed by Eli, but because of Eli’s aversion to act; Eli failed to discipline his scoundrel sons for their corruption which he recognized and ignored. 3 ///
Unfortunately no country is perfect, even America – which is as great as there ever has been– but, see, we have not stopped the oppression of racism. There are times it does not even seem a priority. A few days ago leaders in our nation – in both parties– appear to have sat and done nothing in the presence of vulgar disrespect for Black nations and their people.
Shortly after the Civil War leaders of both parties also sat and did nothing about many continuing injustices of racism well into the 20th Century until divine justice overwhelmed us through our founder’s words and God’s word being prophetically put front and forward in a civil rights movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Obviously Rev. King heard and answered the call ministry and to work for justice. 4 Leading the civil rights movement was exhausting and the hate and threats had him at wits end. He was ready to get out of harm’s way, to give up, then heard another call, like Samuel he prayed. Rev. King prayed :
I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right, But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership. And if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
In a very real sense Rev. King asked God in his own words to “Speak, for your servant is listening?” And as soon as he finished Dr. King noted:
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. . . 5. (MARTIN LUTHER KING)
In our lesson Samuel confronted Eli a power elite, and spoke truth to him about the oppression Eli was doing little about, the oppression his sons, the priests in power, sanctioned and inflicted on the less powerful. Martin Luther King, Jr., confronted power elites and spoke truth about the oppression of racism that they were doing far too little about, the oppression others in power were inflicting on the politically less powerful, Black Americans.
In many of our lifetimes Black Americans were by law considered unequal and treated as such. This went on despite our founders’ claim that we were answering – and to answer– God’s call to consider all created equal. See our nation let the elitist call to White supremacy through and left God on call waiting. And despite our founders’ claim that our nation answered God’s call to recognize all are endowed with the unalienable rights our nation answered White supremacy’s call and left God on call waiting. So God got on another line and called and called and called. For decades God called.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King not only answered God’s call but in the vein of Samuel he called on the powerful and all of God’s people to answer God’s call too. And he used the twofold tools of a prophet, ears and lips, in answering God’s call and calling others to answer it with non-violence and love. Rev. King learned from Jesus how to used non-violence and love as a force. Jesus took seriously the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he applied it to everyone, including enemies. Jesus advocated for non-violence – “turn the other cheek.”
By that he did not mean doing nothing like Eli in our lesson had been doing, or for that matter like our nation has bouts of doing little or nothing. Ignoring injustice is not how Jesus’ “love everyone” works. In Jesus’ first effort at preaching he declared he was sent to do things” “bring good news to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” This is what Jesus worked toward. This is what he stands for still today. Jesus’ did it with non-violence and love . . . resistence laced and oppression ending love. The end goal being peace and the means to get there, love.
Rev. King applied Jesus’ non-violent, loved- filled resistence. Rev. King called this “the doctrine of love.” And he coupled Jesus’ “doctrine of love” with Mahatma Gandhi’s earlier use of that doctrine in wide scale protests. Martin Luther King called this combination “love-force.” He noted that earlier on that:
I came to see . . . that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of non-violence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. . .“This principle became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.” 6 & 7
On his last Christmas Rev. King preached what is known as “The Christmas Sermon on Peace.” 8 and he explained that non-violence be used for peace and that in order to have peace on earth we must “learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.” 9 Then he preached these amazing words summing up Jesus’ Way to remove the weight of injustice attached to the hull of any ship of state.
one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends. 10.
Violence of any kind weighs down our sailing toward peace. We can move a little in the sea of life with that weight strapped on, but it must be removed if we want to reach our full potential.
Two thousand years ago Jesus commanded that we turn the other cheek, that We love everyone. He showed us how to do that. And the New Testament instructs us to do as Jesus did. Like Jesus we are called to “bring good news to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” This is what Jesus worked and works toward. This is what he stands for. Jesus’ form of non-violence is loved- filled, but resistence laced and oppression ending oriented. The end goal is peace and the means to get there is love. Jesus’ life still resonates with us because he pursued, practiced and taught this so well. And it is not impossible for us to do in modern times. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings and actions did as Jesus taught. He proved it can be done and powerfully so.
How can WE do this non-violent love stuff to lift the weight of racism off the “hull” of America? We can start by turning to God and praying as Samuel did: “ “Speak, for your servant is listening” and then act on what we hear.
When I do that I hear many ideas. Here are some of them: (1) We can educate ourselves on racism, acknowledge it exists and needs to be stopped. (2) We can purposefully get to know and befriend people who have a different skin color than our own. (3) We can listen to people of color and validate their experiences of racism. (4) We can help amplify their voices so that others listen. (5) We can expressly oppose racism when we see it and stop honoring symbols of racism and the men who made their fame supporting it. (6) We can support events, institutions, groups, politicians and leaders working to overcome racism. (7) We can stop racism by listening to God’s voice calling us to join the efforts for equality–and then joining those efforts.
And we know it is the voice of God because it is about Love responding with non-violence– the life transforming, world transforming love doctrine and love force. Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. both used love and non-violence to change the world to end injustices.
May we answer the call to do so as well.
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2012
1. I have seen this story a number of times on the internet, the claim is always that it really happened. I took this version with some modification from the website at:
2. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 245
3. Ibid. at 246.
4. King, Martin, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King,
5. King, Martin Luther, Strength to Love, Fortress Press, Minn. (2010) p. 117
6. Ibid. at 159.
7. Ibid. at 160.
8 Washington, James, A Testament of Hope, the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. HarperOne, (1986), 253.
10. Ibid at 255
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