Ears that Tingle

A Sermon preached at a local Unity Service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2010, based on the story of Eli and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-20) and Nathaniel (John 1:43-51), following a theatre visit to see Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, with Christian unity the furthest thought from my mind. 

‘Something to make your ears tingle!’ (i Samuel 3:11). On first acquaintance the story of Eli and Samuel is a story about an old man and a boy, but might it be saying something to us today? Just possibly it might be a story about an era that is coming to an end and a new one struggling to be born or an Establishment coming to an end and a new generation looking for something different.

Eli was an old man. Like the BBC, the Conservative Party, the City, the Bank of England, Rome, Canterbury and Geneva — or the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — most people can’t remember a time when he wasn’t there, but everybody knows he’s not the man he used to be. His eyesight is failing. It’s not that he can’t read and write. It’s that he no longer sees the issues coming up, and because he is not totally blind he can still see vague shapes and imagines everything is like it always was when everybody else knows it isn’t.

All around him the trappings are still there. The Ark, which contained the Ten Commandments (his Rule Book) is still by the bed, but no longer has any pulling power. His bedside lamp has not quite gone out, but it’s fading fast and he scarcely notices. His two sons see things differently, and are pretty good at helping themselves into the bargain, but when Eli is confronted with it his attitude is one of acquiescence and indifference rather than repent and reform.

Every now and then the people protest and the old buck rouses himself and locks antlers with the young stags, but he no longer has strength or inclination for the fight and they just nicely pat him on the head and tell him to go back to bed.

Samuel was a boy, working at the heart of the Establishment. He was not exactly Eli’s son but he might as well have been. His parents had handed him over to Eli when he was a baby. He had never known anything else. He had little idea of what was going on in the wider world and probably no idea what Eli’s sons were up to, but he does know that something is wrong, that things can’t go on as they are, and when given the opportunity blows the whistle with a childlike innocence.

In contemporary church life, the basics of the story are by no means unfamiliar. Eli, puzzled and confused by much that is happening around him, is still a force to be reckoned with. In all sorts of ways the future is unclear. and there’s an Eli on every street corner and a dozen young Samuel’s waiting in the wings trying to pluck up enough courage to change things.

In older, established and traditional churches the movement for unity has lost its way. The younger, independent house churches, some but not all pentecostal and charismatic, are either oblivious to it or think they have found it, but are certainly not interested in the tortuous routes to unity which still clutter the agendas of the older churches. Are we perhaps at the end of an era looking for a new beginning, and If we are, has the the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity become a kind of No Man’s Land that focuses the dilemma.

No Man’s Land is the title of a play by Harold Pinter. Seeing it (quite unintentionally during the Week of Prayer) I felt I was watching a run-down of the problems.

It is about two literary men in their sixties. Hirst, prosperous and with a past, and Spooner, without roots and down-at-heel. Both are feeling the problems of age. Both are seeking comfort in memory and fantasy as they try to prop each other up. And as the play got underway I lost the two old men and instead found myself watching a couple of Christian institutions trying to relate to each other. By the end they had become the Catholic/Orthodox tradition and the Churches of the Reformation, though I was well aware there were many other possibilities. 

When the play opens Hirst and Spooner have only just ‘come together’. They never really ‘met’. ‘Bumped into each other’ would be an apt description. It is late, and Spooner has infiltrated himself into Hirst’s house on the strength of an invitation to a casual drink.

Hirst has a position and a reputation. Like any long-established institution, he doesn’t have to say anything. For half-an-hour he hardly speaks. He is just there, but he is clearly trapped in the present and haunted by the past. Spooner, on the other hand, talks — a lot — to establish his credentials, and with no past of his own he will pick up on that of Hirst where he can, and once he has exposed Hirst’s insecurity he offers to be his friend. ‘We can help one another’, he says.

Hirst’s strength is his photograph album. Spooner ought to be impressed. It shows Hirst when he was younger and reflects a world where both of them would have been happier but which is no longer on offer. The grass was green, the hampers rich, the girls white. Now all Hirst has is his dignity and when he tries to raise some of the faces from the past to persuade Spooner that they still have something to offer, he gives the game away when he says, ‘tender the dead, as you yourself would be tendered.’

Spooner, on the other hand, has to learn what it is like suddenly to find yourself in total darkness, as Act 1 comes abruptly to an end with all the lights going out, and he wakes up next morning in a totally alien environment and the door locked. His confusion is devastating. First he never touches breakfast, then he devours one. Next he has a Board meeting, which he abandons as soon as something else crops up. He has no programme, plan or principle ‘Temperamentally I can be what you wish’, he says, as he fumbles his way through unknown and unfamiliar territory. 

At one point (preacher that I am) I found myself hoping that Hirst’s son and his friend, Briggs, both of whom seemed to represent the younger, more open house churches untrammelled by much that afflicted the previous generation, might rescue both of them and perhaps blaze a new trail altogether, but I found no evidence, and the play ends in No Man’s Land, ‘which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.’

The play is more a poem than a thesis, with Pinter, as always, strong on perception and weak on solution. But if clarity of vision is the first step towards resolution he certainly opened my eyes to see the wood for the trees, and at least to begin to see where Isaiah’s ‘highway in the desert’ is needed, and where to start building.

I went home and (again unintentionally) read the gospel for the day: John 1, where Nathaniel is knocked over by the presence of Jesus and Jesus says, ‘You will see greater things than these.’ Jesus had similarities with Spooner. He didn’t come from anywhere either. Well, yes he did. He came from Nazareth. Where? None of his disciples had the right ID cards either. It says that when he picked them he went to Galilee and ‘found Philip’. There’s no suggestion that the man was ever lost. He’d been there all the time. No suggestion either that Jesus had a business plan or an ecclesiastical forum and then went head-hunting. Things just seemed to happen because in the ordinary course of everyday life he spotted someone who seemed to him to be going in the same direction and thought they could usefully go forward together.

Philip then went and ‘found’ Nathaniel and said, ‘I think we’ve found what we were always looking for but never really understood and couldn’t quite identify.’ ‘Where?’ says Nathaniel. ‘Nazareth’, he replies. ‘I don’t believe it . . .’ says Nathaniel. ‘‘Well, come and see for yourself.’

And in that electric moment, the field of influence and the locus of action pass over from the Jewish Establishment, the Eli’s and all that he represents — to the common man, in the battle which came to a head over the next 200 years as Jesus and the early Christians worked out their own salvation, with Paul and Peter for many years right at the heart of it.

So perhaps the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will find its fulfilment, not when all the man-made establishments find a way of coming together by breaking down the barriers that divide, but when the people who sit in the pews find someone else going in the same direction, find the courage to break with the past — real or synthetic — and get up and go.

When Eli (any establishment) is at the point of death the Word says that God is about to do something to make the ears tingle. What we have to decide is whether we want to be Eli (deaf) or Samuel (listening) and when we think we hear, how long will it take us to act?  Maybe when our ears begin to tingle it’s time to look around and find Nathaniel.

© Alec Gilmore 2014