One of the most powerful acts of love I have ever received did not feel like love at all while it was happening to me. It came in the form of a very difficult conversation that a friend had with me during my first year of college. This friend was another student in the music department who was a few years older than me, and she warned me that I was starting to develop a reputation for being kind of arrogant and full of myself.
I had come to college out of a very small, K-12 school – there were only 17 kids in my graduating class! And being good at music was a big part of my identity – it was my thing (not only did I win the senior musician award my senior year, I was the only person who was even eligible for it that year, lol). I was kind of used to being hot stuff, the lead singer on things. But when I got to college, even though it was a relatively small university, I was suddenly surrounded by lots of people who were the best singers from their schools – and they came from schools that were a lot bigger and better funded than mine.
It was extremely intimidating. And I think I developed that sense of arrogance and pridefulness as a kind of defense mechanism, to hide that underneath it there was this profound insecurity and a loss of a sense of identity. And so I didn’t want to believe what my friend was saying to me at first – how could I possibly be coming across as arrogant when that wasn’t at all how I felt on the inside? But she repeated back to me some of the things she had heard me say, and I heard my own pridefulness come through those words loud and clear. It was a painfully humbling experience.
And as hard as it was for me to hear what she had to say to me, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to say it. It’s one thing to call out someone you don’t like for their poor behavior – but to call out someone you care about for the way they’re behaving is much, much harder. And my friend did it for my benefit, pointing out that my defensiveness and ego were pushing people away and making it hard for me to make more friends in the department. That hard conversation helped me let down my walls a little bit and connect more deeply and authentically with other people, many of whom I’m still friends with to this day. And it was humbling to realize after the fact that she chose to be so brutally honest with me because she cared enough about her friendship with me to say the hard thing. I’m grateful for the courage and care she showed in telling me the truth.
Reflecting on this story, it makes a lot of sense to me that, of all the sayings that we have in English about truth, probably the two most common are: “The truth hurts” and also “The truth will set you free.”
In our first reading for this morning, we also get a glimpse of some hard truths coming out in the story of Samuel and Eli. Many of us remember the dramatic call story of Samuel – the Lord’s voice calls to him in the middle of the night, he keeps getting up thinking that Eli is calling him, and he finally responds to God with that memorable line: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” It’s no wonder that this is a popular text to read at ordinations!
And it’s also no wonder that this reading often stops right after that line in verse 10 – because the rest of the story gets kind of challenging, as we read today. After Samuel says, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening,” God speaks! And we realize that the message God gives to Samuel is actually a message for Eli and, well, it is not exactly good news.
To give a brief bit of backstory, God is angry with Eli because of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Like their father, Hophni and Phinehas served as priests, but they abused their power and authority by keeping the best portions of the sacrifices offered in the temple for themselves and by committing adultery and sexual assault with the women who worked in the temple. Eli chastises them for their terrible behavior, but he doesn’t really do much of anything to stop it. Eli’s inaction further enrages God – who is already furious with Eli’s sons – and so God vows to Eli to punish him and his descendents because of it.
So in our reading for today, what God says to Samuel – in a nutshell – is basically: “Hey, tell Eli: Remember that terrible thing I said I was going to do to you and your offspring? Yeah, I’m still totally gonna do that.” Samuel is – understandably – “afraid to tell the vision to Eli.” And it’s not just because he might be worried about making Eli angry. Eli had raised Samuel for most of his life; his mother Hannah had offered him to God’s service when he was a very young child. So Samuel was called to share this terrible, painful news with someone whom he undoubtedly cared about very deeply.
But Eli must have had some inkling of what it was that Samuel heard, because he tells Samuel to tell him everything and to hold nothing back. And he clearly knows it’s not good news, because he says to Samuel, “May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel tells Eli everything. And Eli quietly listens, calmly accepting everything Samuel has to say by simply saying, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Samuel’s courage and honesty in sharing God’s words with Eli are an example for us all to follow. But I am also impressed in this story by the gracious way that Eli receives the hard words that he must hear. He doesn’t get defensive or angry; instead he recognizes the truth and justice in Samuel’s words and he accepts his fate with grace. And because of Samuel’s faithfulness in telling the truth, he gains a reputation in all of Israel for being a trustworthy prophet.
The truth in this story certainly hurts. But in a way, the truth also sets Eli and Samuel free.
As disciples of Christ, doing our best to imitate Christ in our daily lives, we are likewise called to speak the truth. We are called to listen patiently for God’s word, to receive it with grace, and to speak the truth in love, especially in times of trouble and violence.
This week we actually celebrate the legacy of one of the greatest truth-tellers in modern history: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King spoke hard truths to a nation that did not want to hear them. He spoke honestly about the discrimination and prejudice and racist violence that he and other people of color faced daily, and he told the truth about the fact that these things have deep roots that can be traced all the way back to American slavery.
It took great courage for him to be able to say these things. Because like Samuel – and even like my friend from college – he wasn’t speaking these hard truths to people he didn’t care about. Dr. King was speaking the truth to the people of a country he loved. He believed deeply in the highest ideals of this nation, so much so that he gave his own life fighting to actually make them so. And his greatest frustration was with the people who responded to his message of truth with defensiveness and anger, instead of receiving the truth with grace like Eli.
Dr. King’s message of justice and equality and truth is one that is still being spoken. There are still voices in our day who are calling us and our nation to own the difficult truths of our history, and to acknowledge the injustice and inequality in our present. And they are not the voices clamoring for violence in our nation’s capitol, nor those that spout hatred and division. Dr. King’s legacy lives on in the voices of those who advocate for greater inclusion and representation of the “least of these” who have long been excluded and marginalized, the voices of those who preach a message of love and tolerance and peace.
It is painful to be reminded of the inequality that still exists in our nation and in our world, and it’s more painful still to be told that we benefit from this inequality because of the color of our skin. But unless we listen with grace and engage in this hard conversation, our pain and defensiveness will continue to keep our hearts bound. Only the truth will truly set us free.
God speaks truth to us through our prayers, through our worship, and sometimes even through our neighbor. And we can trust that, even when God speaks hard truths to us, it is done with love. God cares enough about relationship with us to tell us the truth, even when it hurts. As we continue to follow Christ on the path of discipleship, I pray that we may all have the patience to listen for God’s word, and the humility to receive it with grace when we hear it. And I pray also that we may have the courage of Samuel to boldly proclaim the truth in love.
The truth hurts sometimes – both to speak and to receive. But as we imitate Christ in hearing and speaking the truth in love, I have no doubt that truth is also what will set us free.