1 Samuel 2:12-17 (NRSV)
Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.
When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, and he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself.
This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the one who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast; for he will not accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.”
And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take whatever you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now; if not, I will take it by force.”
Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.
Yesterday, I attended a mandatory clergy ethics training, along with probably a hundred other United Methodist clergypersons from our conference. The training was focused on creating and maintaining appropriate boundaries between religious leaders and those in their care. The presenters, aware that many people did not particularly want to be there, tried to ground the day’s work within the framework of the Biblical narrative.
Just look at how God creates the heavens and the earth in the beginning of time! God brought order to the formless void of space, creating light and separating the light and darkness. Making a dome to separate the waters. Forming smaller lights to separate the day from the night. The story goes on and on, emphasizing the boundaries that allow the flourishing of life on earth and in heaven.
In fact, the first sin—eating of the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—was a human attempt to cross the boundary between God and humanity.
As I’ve been reflecting on these themes in Scripture and as we’ve committed to directing our attention to the issue of our witness to the wider world, it struck me that one of the perennial issues facing the church’s ability to witness is our maintenance of boundaries.
I’m sure that’s not what any of you were thinking when I announced a few weeks ago that witness-ing would be this year’s focus. Isn’t witnessing all about telling people how great Jesus is?
That’s certainly part of it. But who is going to believe us about how wonderful Jesus and how he’s changed our lives if we’re living a life which really witnesses to something else. If we’re living lives corrupted by pride, lust, or greed?
We’ll get to some contemporary examples in a moment, but one text that speaks of this kind of corruption among the people of God is the text we read from 1 Samuel:
This story reminds us of the corruption that is far too prevalent among religious leaders. The heirs of Eli’s priesthood, Hophni and Phinehas, were “despicable men who didn’t know the Lord”. In other words, they went about their duties without any acknowledgment that what they were doing mattered. They thought they could get away with cutting corners in God’s clear instructions because they couldn’t see the harm in it. They didn’t think God would mind. And so, they went up to those who were offering a sacrifice and asked for a nice juicy piece of meat to roast. Boiled meat isn’t good enough for us, they said. We want to put our meat on the fire pit, to slowly roast it to perfection.
Perhaps we can sympathize with their desire for roasted meat. After all, who among us would choose a boiled hot dog over one fresh off the grill? What they didn’t understand is that the sacrifice wasn’t there for their personal enjoyment. It wasn’t a gift to them, it was a sacrificial gift to God, through which the priests were given sustenance.
This account of the corruption doesn’t just tell us about Hophni and Phinehas’ gluttony and greed, it tells us about how power can get to someone’s head to the point at which they think they have a right to anything and everything they want.
Just a few months ago, a Pastor in our conference was stripped of his credentials for embezzling thousands of dollars from his church’s Good Samaritan fund which had been donated to help those who couldn’t afford their groceries, gas, or utility bills.
Just think about what kind of witness that kind of act demonstrates to the wider community? That the people who purport to follow Jesus really just follow the desires of their wallet? That one person’s act had repercussions for his family, his church, and a whole community that can no longer trust the church.
It’s not just pastors—treasurers, ushers, offering counters all have the potential to give into their sinful desires to take what isn’t theirs, to demand and take what they think they deserve, like Hophni and Phineas.
Of course, as we find out later in the story, this was not the least of the sins of this sinful duo. Verse 22 tells us that Eli’s sons were also involved in sexual impropriety with women who were involved in temple service outside the tent of meeting. When Eli heard of this, he told this sons “do not do that!”, but the damage had likely already been done. Certainly the people who came to the tent of meeting knew what was going on. They knew that the sons of Eli were taking not only their sacrifices, but their daughters. How much trust do you think these people had in the institution of worship?
That’s why in Deuteronomy, the Lord tells Moses that “anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.” The prophet who speaks words that have not been commanded, or you would also expect, disobeys the word that has been given, will be held to account.
These words in Deuteronomy aren’t about retribution and vengeance, They’re about maintaining God’s standards of justice and righteousness which are a witness to God’s goodness and love.
So too are the words of Jesus in Mark chapter 9: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” He goes on to say that we should remove anything from our lives that tempt us to sin, violating that sacred trust between us and our neighbor.
Reading those verses, my heart is torn and my stomach churns, thinking about those who have violated that sacred trust and harmed the youngest members of our society. The names of Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar come to mind, from scandals that have forever harmed the lives of young women and men and have exposed a multitude of sins.
Reading a recent story in the Christian Century about a female pastor who, after dealing with sexual trauma earlier in life, I was shocked and disgusted by how she was treated when she reported the misconduct of her supervising pastor. A multitude of smaller boundary violations had escalated into a physical act of abuse. When forced to deal with the issue, the personnel committee asked, “What can we do to make this go away?” That one misuse of power changed her whole career outlook and forced her to work below her skill level, as no one would believe her over her boss. No justice and accountability was rendered by the church structures.
How many other women in ministry like her have been similarly manipulated, and decided to leave the ministry for their own safety and wellbeing?
Name after name has come into the public conversation about sexual misconduct and abuse. The end of the deluge seems still far away. From pastors to politicians, actors to executives. The issue transcends political party and industry. Many have lost their jobs, while others have had their sins exposed publicly and still have not been brought to account.
No matter what happens in the months and years ahead on this issue, we all have work to do in maintaining the church’s witness and advocating for those who have been wronged.
All of us need to join together and say: No more. We must all raise our voices and speak out when we witness inappropriate behavior.
After all, this kind of accountability—bringing into the light secrets hidden in darkness—was the mission of Christ.Hear what follows the familiar words we all have memorized from John chapter 3:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”1
One way or another, all will be exposed in God’s justice—deeds good and bad. How much more reason to act NOW and abandon our desire for darkness and secrecy, instead following Biblical models of accountability in the church?
Is all this abuse of power reason to give up, trust no one, and flee from every earthly institution, including the church? No.
The church will never be led by perfect leaders, but that’s why our structures of boundaries and accountability are so important.
That’s why we all need to reaffirm our commitment to maintaining the church’s ethics, and witness, through the highest standards of conduct.
Whether that’s running background checks on those who work with children in the church or trusting and responding to someone when they report a wrong that has occurred, we need to bring everything into the light of Christ which keeps us accountable in love.
May we all respond to our calling to be God’s witnesses with grace and truth, doing no harm and doing good for the kingdom as we all participate in the ministries of the church and witness to God’s coming kingdom.
Let us pray:
Lord, save us from our anxiety and weary hearts over the issues that face our community, church, and wider culture. Redeem us from the defeat of our past efforts to lead lives of justice and righteousness. May we “bear a faithful testimony against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” in our world, proclaiming the good news through which people may call upon your name. Truly, they cannot call upon one in whom they have not believed, and they cannot believe in one of whom they have not heard. Neither can they believe in one whose image has been corrupted by unrighteousness. May we be be agents of your revelatory light, which comes to convict and save the world. Amen.
1 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Jn 3:16–21.