Sunday, January 17, 2021

Epiphany II

1 Samuel 3

7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The first rule of comedy is repetition. The second rule of comedy is repetition. The third rule of comedy is, you guessed it…

Perhaps the real second rule of comedy is don’t analyse comedy, but we’re going to do anyway.  Repetition, stating the same turn of phrase over and over, is funny because it does the unexpected.  In my example, it was funny the moment I repeated repetition, and then it’s up to the audience to decide when it’s no longer funny.  

Another version of repetition is in the set-up.  “Two guys walk into a bar” is an example, where we’re anticipating something funny because we know a joke is coming.  Likewise with “Knock knock,” which we might describe as training wheels for the aspiring comic.  Again, the repetition of the frame tells us that something funny (may) be coming.

Back to the first example, repeating a phrase or situation over and over tends to trigger a delight response, especially when it involves children.  Bil Keane’s iconic joke that begins with some variation of “What did you do today, Billy?” (followed by a look at his route around the neighbourhood) is just one example.  Another, of course, is the call of Samuel.  The author’s triple-telling is a signal that this is meant to delight us:

Samuel: “Here I am, you called me.”

Old Eli: “I didn’t call, go back and lie down.”

Parents and babysitters will also recognise another bit of humour here: the kid who keeps getting up.  And like my first joke, it’s cute for a time, until it stops being cute altogether.  Back to Samuel and old Eli, the key to the passage is hiding in plain sight at the beginning: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare.”  It takes Eli two or three goes to recognize what’s really happening here.  After all, the word of the Lord was rare.  

But with recognition, and a skilled teacher, Samuel learns that the Lord is speaking and learns an appropriate response: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  The word that follows—what will become his first prophetic utterance—isn’t an easy message to hear.  The Lord reveals to the boy that his mentor Eli will fall from grace, owing to the misbehavior of his sons and his inability to restrain them.  What began as a playful exchange becomes a hard word for Eli and his family.  No one said being a prophet would be easy.

Jump to our gospel lesson, and we see a strange parallel.  It begins like the old shampoo commercial, when you told two friends, and they told two friends.  Jesus calls Philip, and Philip calls Nathanael saying 'come and see the one foretold in the law and the prophets...Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.'  And without missing a beat, Nathanael says "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  

Again, we tend to be entirely too serious when we approach scripture, since Nathanael has just used another comedic device: hyperbole.  Hyperbole exaggerates or overstates something that may or may not be true, but it’s fun to say.  There’s nothing wrong with people from Nazareth—per se—but saying it makes it funny.  

And there’s another comedic device here too, that of the stereotype.  We recognize that this is one of the more dangerous types of humour (often misused) but when used with good intention it can be very funny.  Think small town rivalries, or Leafs versus Habs, or whatever people in the Galilee thought about from Nazareth, and you get the humour.  

 And like our introduction to Samuel, there is a similar movement that will follow.  Jesus’ call to the disciples is largely playful—’come and I’ll make you fishers of people’—but the outcome will be anything but.  And maybe that’s intentional.  A teasing quip about Nazareth or a clever turn on fishing is the lightness needed when the outcome for most of these followers will be suffering and martyrdom.  

I think the closest parallel here would be a film where you already know the ending.  If it’s a film about a beloved person who dies at the end, we enter the theatre ready to be sad.  But that’s not how storytelling works.  The film may open with a reminder that this beloved person is gone, but we are soon lost in the story from the beginning.  Whatever humour or lightness found at the beginning is even more pointed in light of the end.  Our delight is increased because we get to love and laugh once more, even knowing the end of the story.  

So, two lessons here.  The first is to delight in each moment you can, knowing the end of the story.  It’s not an easy lesson to hear or an easy lesson to apply to our lives.  But we know that God gives us delight in the form of humour, tenderness, absurdity, playfulness, and a countless other small things that we can only see if we truly look.  Life is serious enough that we shouldn’t take it entirely seriously.  Life is hard enough, and short enough, that we need to delight in what we can.  That’s the first lesson.

The second lesson is the cost of being a disciple, or in Samuel’s case, a prophet.  Once you accept the call, everything becomes more complicated, more perilous, more demanding.  We can delight in the relationship between Samuel and his mentor, but we also know that Samuel’s first task as prophet was the beginning of a very hard life.  Likewise, the joy of walking with Jesus each day, the gift of his teaching, the window on eternity—all these things live under the shadow of the cross.  And even knowing the end of that particular story—new life in Christ—doesn’t diminish the pain of being a witness to his passion.

Just like Samuel’s time, the word of the Lord is rare in our day.  But just because God is the strong silent type, doesn’t mean God is absent.  God is in the delightful, the touching, and the moving.  Christ is in others, and the people who minister to us.  And the Spirit is all around us, and in us, now and always, Amen.


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