The Unexamined Life
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
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!" 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."
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."
Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"
Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?"
Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
It is a quote by Socrates at his trial where he was sentenced to death. Supposedly Socrates could have avoided death by leaving the city, but if he had to give up what he thought was the highest purpose: the quest for knowledge, then it would be better if he died. And he willingly died in part as a kind of martyr to the truth and to wisdom.
There have been all kinds of rebuttals to this saying of Socrates, although to be fair to Socrates you have to understand the context in which he was saying this and how it more specifically applied to him.
But there is an argument made that this is an elitist saying, for those who have the privilege of seeking truth and wisdom, over against the vast majority of people in this world who struggle to put food on the table, and to work and to look after families and do all the everyday tasks, and consequently don’t have a lot of time for self-examination, and don’t have time for recriminations, regrets, and worrisome thoughts because if they stop working to think, they or their families might starve.
What do you think? Is the unexamined life is not worth living?
Kurt Vonnegut the novelist said. “The unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?”
Is the unexamined life not worth living?
The philosopher George Santayana wrote: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
In other words, if we don’t examine our lives, we will end up repeating past mistakes.
However, Eckart Tolle is his book the Power of Now talks about how much pain we have in our lives from worrying about the things we did in the past and about things that might happen in the future, instead of just living in the present moment and accepting it and enjoying it.
Wow. To examine or not to examine, that is the question?
Now, I have to confess, that I am not an impartial judge when it comes to this question.
One of the chief things that I do is write sermons. It is one of the things I really enjoy as a minister. Maybe preaching and worship are two of the things I enjoy most in ministry.
And it isn’t just the delivery of the sermon on a Sunday morning, but it is the examining that I do to prepare on Sunday morning.
For instance, as I am writing this very sermon on the computer I have open before me on my computer screen and my other monitor 14 different web pages or files including biblical commentary, sermons, stories, articles, Wikipedia, quotes, history lessons and philosophical essays.
And that is just what I have currently open. I might have already looked at 20 more and gleaned some thoughts or dispensed with them as not that usable. And I might open another 10 pages before I finish the sermon.
As I write sermons, I am not trying to excerpt from all these sources as much as fill my head with ideas, thoughts, connections…
…until a particular story line starts to emerge, and I begin the sermon not knowing really where it will end…
…but there is a lot of examining going on. I examine texts, scripture, articles, commentary etc…
…but actually there is a lot of examining that goes on in my own head.
How long it takes to write a sermon for me is a couple of days, but that is not how long it takes to type it. Sometimes I type it in three hours. The biggest amount of time is examining. Examining sources. Examining and thinking and going over it my head. Sometimes I go and play the piano, or even play a card game to give some time for things to percolate in the head, where I am not consciously thinking, and give my conscious mind a few minutes or a half hour breather, so that when I come back into my head, stuff happens…
So, I am all for examination of life. Sermons are all about the examination of life.
Worship is all for the examination of life and your life. For worship is an experience with God. It is conversation with God, where we listen to God and we talk we God. There are times where we examine our lives as we confess our sins, and as we pray and share with God our thoughts and feelings.
There are times of listening to the word, the scriptures, and the word proclaimed, the sermon, where we are not listening to the minister, but listening to God speak to us, challenging us to examine our lives. Why?
Because the truth of the matter is that just so many ways that humans are existentially blind and deaf.
There are so many ways we cannot see and hear the truth.
There are so many ways in which we cannot see or hear love.
There are so many ways in which we are lost.
There are so many ways we layer ourselves with a false self.
There are so many ways in which we pursue happiness that do not lead to happiness.
And that is what are biblical stories are all about today.
I do not agree that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I do agree that examining one’s life can have positive benefits, like healing, forgiveness, education, better choices, truth, and indeed increased happiness.
Although to be fair, it is not just about examining one’s life, it is also about the choices we make, and the beliefs we come to after making that examination.
And it is not just individuals that sometimes need to examine their lives, it is groups, corporations, churches, nations, governments, communities etc. who can derive a lot of value, from examination, but even more so, from changing once that evaluation is done.
Most of us in the church are familiar with the story of the calling of Samuel. Samuel was a little boy who grew up in the temple with the old priest Eli.
His mother Hannah was unable to have children and Samuel comes as a miracle in answer to prayer and so she dedicates him to the Lord and when he is a young boy instead of going to boarding school, or regular school he goes to the temple to grow up to have a life dedicated to God.
And the story today we read is how he heard his name being called in the middle of the night “Samuel, Samuel.”
He thinks it is the old priest Eli, but we know it is God who is speaking to him.
But Samuel doesn’t recognize God at first. To use a metaphor. Samuel doesn’t see.
It is an almost universal experience, this lack of seeing or hearing God when God is calling out your name and God is there to be seen and heard.
Most of us don’t actually hear a voice in the night, but most of us fail to see the many ways God moves in the world.
That God is in loving actions, deeds of justice and mercy. That God is in beauty and music, and art and the glory of all things created. Rocks, mountains, rivers, seas, animals, pets and even insects.
God is in stories and poetry and movies and comics and all matter of speeches and conversations and sayings.
That God is in people and not just good people, but that all people are made in the image of God, it is just that some people are more lost than others, and have turned away from their true selves.
Most of us see the ugly ducklings instead of the beautiful swans.
Or we see the frog instead of the prince inside.
Or we see the dirty girl cleaning the cinders instead of the princess.
Sometimes we are blind to the fact that we are royalty, children of a Heavenly Ruler, brothers and sisters to Jesus the king, earthly treasures.
Samuel was blind at first. He could hear but he couldn’t listen to God at first.
And this story is one of those stories that is also much bigger than Samuel.
This was a tectonic shift in the life of Israel
The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Samuel is the last of the judges and during those times, people did what was right in their own eyes.
It was a profound time of non-examination, a profound time of violence, of greed, of ego and selfishness, both personally and corporately…
…and Samuel is the shift to a time when people will start to listen more to truth, to love, to God, and not just some individuals, but the nation. Samuel is the connection between the time of the Judges and lawlessness and the time of the prophets.
The nation and the people will not be perfect. They will fail, but their relationship to God will grow. Some of their blindness will be lifted.
And it starts in the temple with little Samuel, that tells us that profound changes in society, in opening the eyes of the blind, in helping people hear and see, truth and love, begins with ordinary little people who see and hear truth and love, who let God talk to them.
And we can be those people. We can examine ourselves. We can open eyes and ears to truth and love and to God’s ways. And we can make a difference in this world.
And it starts in the temple. And the gospel lesson, this short little story about Nathanael, is a story that comes just 12 verses before another temple story. The story of Jesus overturning the money changers tables, and driving the animals out of the temple.
It too is a story of a tectonic shift. It too is a story of Organized Religion and Power and Politics being blind and not hearing or listening to God.
It is about the powerful who are using politics and religion for their own interests, instead of politics and religion helping people to love one another, share with one another, learn from one another, heal one another, forgive one another, and grow together as a family for the good of all.
And Jesus is the new temple. That is the shift. Whereas the old temple was the place where God lived, the place you had to go to for forgiveness, where you had to make a sacrifice in order for God to love you.
Jesus was the new place where God lived, and everyone had access to God, and you didn’t have to make a sacrifice to get God to love you, Jesus himself was the Lamb of God who absorbed all the sin of the world, and yet didn’t hurt back, but only loved.
Jesus was the place where God lived and showed that God was love and only love.
And so, we get back to Nathanael, one of those who will be called by Jesus. And while Samuel hears an actual voice in his call story, the voice that Nathanael hears is that of Philip his friend inviting him to come and see.
He tells him that they have found the one about whom Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets. They have found anointed one, the Messiah. They have found the one who reveals God, who helps the blind to see; and those who cannot hear God, to hear God.
And it is Jesus from Nazareth. Now Nazareth is not some great city, it is a small agricultural place of not much significance and it is not near Jerusalem, it is the north where people had a different accent and were considered to be kind of country hicks.
And so, Nathanael sarcastically says. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
And Philip says “Come and See.”
In other words. Open your eyes. Vision is a huge theme in the gospels and especially in John’s gospel. “I once was blind but now I see” is in John’s gospel. It is a metaphor that if you want to find peace and happiness and love and fulfillment you need to see Christ and let Jesus open your eyes to real living. And that real living consists of unconditional love and peace towards all people.
And if you find that love, nothing can take away your joy in loving, not powers, or principalities, not evil or falseness and not even death itself.
The kicker is this, however. That joy, peace and love, is not nearly as glorious as what we think. It is about humble service towards others, and telling the truth no matter the consequences. It is about taking up a cross and suffering or sacrificing in order to love, or for justice, or for equality.
It is not just about loving the good people but the bad people, and the ones who are hard to love.
Nathanael has the freedom to come to Jesus. He is not swayed by public opinion, or by media, or by riches, or by glory. He wants his eyes opened to truth and love and to God and he is willing to follow wherever that takes him.
I am not always so willing to take up my cross.
Flannery O’Connor was a deeply religious writer of short stories, but her stories were disturbing and graphic and violent sometimes and different. She was kind of like a cross between St Thomas Aquinas and Quentin Tarantino.
Filled with religious imagery, the stories themselves do not always seem very pious or religious and the imagery is not always self-evident. Her stories are more Carnival and grotesque than pious and religious, but beneath all her stories there was an element of grace and of God seeking us out.
A Flannery O’Connor story is something not only to be read and experienced but to be examined, and then used as a way to examine your own soul.
In her short story Parker’s Back, Parker is a man who had something happen to him at a carnival when he was a teen. He encountered a man who had tattoos all over him, and it started a fascination with tattoos and Parker started getting tattoos all over his body. Each one would thrill him, but the satisfaction would wear off, as if he could never be truly satisfied.
Parker had a five-year stint in the navy and he ends up marrying a deeply religious and pious woman, whom strangely enough he thinks is ugly, but is at the same time attracted to her. But she doesn’t really satisfy him or fulfill him either. She is Sarah Ruth Cates. Notice the very biblical names. He is O. E. Parker and doesn’t like anyone to know his names which he actually confides to his girlfriend, later wife, which stands for Obadiah, Elihu Parker. Obadiah is a prophet and Elihu is a questionable friend of Job.
Parker is dissatisfied with his marriage and life and while working one day driving a tractor is thinking about his life and in a moment of inattention drives into a tree, spilling the tractor over causing the tractor and the tree to catch on fire. It is a burning bush experience, complete with the fact that Parker in the story loses his shoes and is barefoot in the experience.
Parker is overcome with a feeling of getting a new tattoo, a different tattoo. He goes and gets an image of Christ. Not a cozy comfortable sentimental image of Christ, but a “Byzantine Christ with all demanding eyes.” He tries to deny he is a Christian or religious but there is a change in him and for maybe the first time he feels that dissatisfaction has left him.
He goes home to his wife thinking that his religious wife will be pleased, but she recognizes that he is different and won’t let him in the door. He says it’s the old O. E. It is a scriptural reference to the need to put off the old man.
And when he is not let in, he looks to the sky and sees a tree of light burst over the horizon and falls back on the door as if he had been pinned there by a lance. A reference to the lance that pierced Jesus’ side.
He turns to the door and whispers his name Obadiah Elihu, and I quote: “and all at once he felt light pouring through him turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colours, a garden or trees and birds and beasts.”
Grace has touched him.
He is let in, but his wife instead of accepting his new grace filled condition, in a surprise move for the listener, becomes all righteous and Pharisaic, calls the tattoo an idolatry and takes a broom and beats him and rejects him, bringing to mind the scripture: blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
And the story ends with Parker sitting outside crying.
The story, as one reads it, is dark and disturbing in some ways, comical in others, and if not looking for the biblical imagery, one could easily read the story and say: “What was that all about?”
Parker is not a very sympathetic figure and his religious conversion is not a very pious one. But through it all Flannery O’Connor is making the point how we have a longing and a hole in our hearts, a dissatisfaction that only grace and Christ can fill. And grace has been hunting down Parker all these years and finally finds him and the all-seeing Christ enters his life giving him new eyes to see.
And paradoxically, one of the first things he will see that faith can lead to suffering.
Many of us can share a similar story. A story of grace hunting us down. A story of not being perfect, of not even understanding everything that is happening, of unexamined lives being touched by an all-seeing Christ, and finding that faith has as many thorns as roses someday.
And I wonder, if like me, you will have the sense of the miraculous, that God has never let you go…that God’s grace has always been seeking you, that God has opened yours eyes to see that you are God’s child, that God has called you and knows you, that God uses even you to share a message of love, and that you make a difference in this world; and that despite the that fact that loving people, sometimes means suffering and a cross, that Jesus is the way to live, the truth about life, and that Jesus is life itself.