“River Teeth”

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Chris Wondree

6/2/2024

Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20

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You know, throughout the week, I don’t think nearly as many people have ever stopped by my office or texted me asking, okay, Chris, what is this River Teeth? People who saw it on Facebook from a post. I could’ve even gone to get a propane tank at the Lowe’s store and they probably would’ve asked me, hey, so what’s the deal with River Teeth? I don’t know. I guess we’re gonna have to find out today.

Today is our Graduate Sunday, and it’s so inspired, I guess, that it falls on the same day where the lectionary readings come from. First Samuel, the call of Samuel, and also Paul’s wisdom in the New Testament. We’ve got the call and we’ve got the wisdom.

The combination of the Old Testament and the New Testament is perfect for a day where we’re celebrating the end of one chapter and being joyful about what is coming next. Now, as I prepared for this morning, not in one sermon writing chair, but several sermon writing chairs, I couldn’t help but be swept up in this image that was shared in one of the commentaries. It was about a tree, a river, and the two halves of that tree’s life.

If we could lay out a timeline, we would see the life of this tree. On the left, it would be the first half of the life and a giant mark in the middle, and then the second half of the life. On the left, we’d be able to see all of the growth from that tree, from a seedling to a sapling, all of the years where it grew because it had lots of nutrients, lots of water, and then all of the years where it was sick, didn’t grow much, or there was no growth at all.

We’d see the times of drought and thriving. You get the picture. In my imagination, I see the tree is on a riverbank.

It’s growing, and it has a bow that goes directly over the water just a little bit and then comes back over land to balance itself out. And on top, it’s full of branches with leaves that provide shade both on the land and over the water. It creates that canopy.

It was a unique tree, but if it was around many other trees, it wouldn’t really stand out all that much. It provided shade for the bank of the river where fish and tadpoles could thrive, branches and a hole maybe that offered shelter for birds and insects and squirrels. It was doing exactly what that tree had always done in this mature state.

It was living its first half of its life right there where it took root. And if you would, please keep this image in your mind as we move forward in today. The Old Testament narrative places us right in the midst of, well, right where we are, or at least we may seem to be at times.

The story begins with the word of the Lord and how it was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. And if we imagine ourselves as first-time readers of this text, wondering what’s going on, we’re very much like Samuel, wondering what’s going on here.

We find ourselves in a time where God feels forgotten, where movements of the spirit are scarce, where we wake up each morning praying for a spark to happen, bringing forth a wave of new growth in the church, but at the same time, not actually expecting it to happen. We found ourselves in the place where hope yearns, but the same old thing drones on and on and on without change. Now, if you felt that, you have felt exactly what the author wants us to feel when we are experiencing Samuel’s call here, to feel what the people were feeling during this time period.

Life was just moving along, just like the tree next to the river. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred and no one was expecting what was about to happen next. And then we meet the boy Samuel, who is offered by his mother in gratitude to the Lord for finally giving her a child after years of trying without success.

We can assume that Samuel spent a lot of days learning, learning about what Eli did as a judge, which was a religious authority who helped discern the will of God in that time period for the people, learning about what Eli did as a judge, learning about what God had done through stories passed down from generation to generation, learning about who God was. His days seem to have been fairly monotonous, if you will. Nothing really happened, just doing the same things over and over again.

And if we remember, the voice of the Lord was rare, visions weren’t widespread. And so we find Samuel sleeping in the inner parts of this traveling tent sanctuary at Shiloh. And he was sleeping specifically very close to the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

And the passage mentions that the light of the Lord was almost out and how it hadn’t gone out yet. And this is an interesting multi-layered metaphor kind of statement. On a literal level, this refers to lamps that they would light.

They would put them in the sanctuary from evening to morning. And that indicates that this all happened just before dawn. It can also be understood as a metaphor pointing to the movement in the story.

Eli’s vision is fading. And so is his role as the priestly source of spiritual vision. Now, in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian narratives and times and stories, ones that took place around the same time that this was taking place, it was common for religious functionaries to try to spend time sleeping near or in a shrine room.

They did that in hopes that they would receive a dream or a vision from the deity. The proximity was a very important part to this. Being near would spark spiritual movement, they believed.

And as a tree that grows close to moving water of a river, hoping to soak up all of the nutrients through its roots as the water seeps into the soil and then drifts away. Now, I wanna take a timeout and give a disclaimer here. I’m not encouraging you to take this moment to say, well, he’s encouraging us to sleep in a holy place, so I’m gonna fall asleep while he gets preacher drones on and on and on.

Nor am I asking you to find time to go sleep in the baptismal after hours, because believe me, Bonnie would probably throw me out into the hallway without a construction hat. Or I would show up tomorrow and my office would then be the new construction zone. But it really makes me wonder, and I hope it makes you wonder that there is something else there going on.

Perhaps we might find ourselves slumbering in places that we hope are close to the Lord. Yearning for some sort of divine inspiration. And before the next day, filled with the same old, same old happenings again, we hope for something more.

In this quiet night, Samuel, after a few unsuccessful attempts and patience on the part of the Lord, he heard the voice of God speak. And he responded, go on then, speak. In that moment, Samuel’s life was changed.

The monotony of every day was gone. And if it was a tree, if he was the tree from our imagination, he was snapped in half. He was snapped in two.

He would no longer stand next to the moving water of the river of life. Instead, he fell in and was fully immersed in the movement of what the Lord was doing. Samuel became the one who heard the voice of the Lord in a time where that was rare.

Samuel became one who received a call to be something more than he was before. And certainly something more than what was coming before him. Sammy was part of this great story arc of the kingdom of God coming into the human world and shaking things up.

The Harvard Old Testament scholar, Paul Hanson, called Samuel a person of pivotal significance in Israel’s history, who is both the last judge and also portrayed as the first prophet. And now maybe you’re already picking up on the fact that I don’t want this message to come off as just a nod to a general call story, where I say, hey, look, maybe you have heard the Lord speaking in your life and you’re called to do something and it’s gonna be great. While that simple interpretation is meaningful in its own ways, I think it might miss some of the depth of what’s going on in this particular narrative.

I believe that the interpretation ignores the fact that God’s call to Samuel and God’s call to each and every one of us is anything but general. It’s not a story of a particular experience on the road where Samuel has a new step forward in his road to spiritual and religious maturity. And if we maintain the tree by the bank metaphor, the tree falling into the river is anything but just an experience, right? It’s life altering that brings with it a move toward something else.

And like that of Samuel, our call is a beckoning by God in a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger, and social upheaval. It feels a little similar. Now, in our context, our flowing current at Richmond’s First Baptist is to work to bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and beyond.

To me, that’s something worth falling into. And I wonder what sort of answer to others’ prayers we would see if we actually did live into and fall into that call. To be called by God is to break from the same old, same old, and to fall into the new thing of what could be.

Samuel’s call is one that beckons us to our own deep listening for the Lord. But that’s just so vague and ambiguous, Chris. What does it mean? Why are you talking about this? Well, I’m really glad that you asked because I have a couple of thoughts on this.

You may find yourself in one of two of these places. One is in the first half of your life, like that of the tree on the riverbank. You haven’t heard or you haven’t discerned your unique call from the Lord yet.

Or two, you’re in the second half of your life, like that of the tree in the river. If you’re in the first place, don’t worry. We worship a God who is coming to break in to each and every person’s life with their own unique call.

I encourage you to keep growing, soaking in the nutrients, and sleeping with a hope that the Lord speaks to you. If you’re in the second place, this is no time to dwell on what used to work. The passage doesn’t allow us to dwell on the experience of God calling Samuel to be an end in itself.

The text reminds us of the spiritual challenges and the social transformations that God’s call actually bring. We’re urged not only to discern God’s voice, but to listen to it, to respond to it, to follow it as well. And if this call seems scary, let’s reflect on what happens to those trees after they fall into the river.

The tree next to the edge of the river of life is only soaking up a little bit at a time as the river flows by. And at some point, it breaks. It leaves the stump and the roots behind and is swept off by the river’s waters.

And eventually, it sinks to the bottom. It nestles in next to some other fallen trees. And the water begins to bring this broken tree back to new life.

And not the same kind of life that it had done before, that it had lived before. The wood starts catching different debris, leaves, foliage. It starts breaking down chunk by chunk as the water rushes over it.

The soft wood falls off and floats on down the river to provide a meal for some other habitat of life. The hard wood of that tree is what remains. And it lets the water rush over it, under it, around it, and even through it.

Some fish or other creatures find shelter there. And the hard wood starts sticking up in several uneven, sharpish edges. And when it’s seen in conjunction with all of the other trees who have fallen and floated and sunk to the bottom to be overrun by this flowing water, you see more sharp, uneven edges.

Almost starting to look like a set of teeth. There it is. And that tree, by falling from the top of the tree, and being swept up in the river’s good water, has begun its second life.

Richard Rohr, in his book, Falling Upward, speaks far more in depth than I could about these two halves of life. He mentions that many of us are never actually told that we can set out from the known and the familiar to take on a further journey. And oftentimes, let’s be honest, our institutions and their expectations on us, including church at times, they often just set up and entirely configured to encourage, support, reward, and even validate the tasks of the first half of life.

We’re more struggling to survive than we are thriving. More just getting through or trying to get to the top than finding out what is really at the top that we’re climbing toward. Thomas Merton, the American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find that when we get to the top of that ladder, the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always, by definition, unknown, unfamiliar. Yet if we listen deeply for the unique call on our lives, that call gives us a push, usually a pretty big one.

And sometimes, like Richard Rohr puts it, we have to fall in order to follow the voice of the Lord. Now, you may find yourself at the edge of a call. When that call comes, I hope you’re listening.

It might be scary. We may not understand it without the help of a mentor or a faithful community following its own call, but it’s always a call for us to something more, something beyond our former state. And that call is going to require some breakage, almost like a tree that has spent years fulfilling its duty, providing shade and shelter, then suddenly just breaks from the riverbank, and it’s swept away by the rushing water of the river of life.

Eventually, it sinks to the bottom, and that river of life just flows over, around, under, and through it, and it becomes Riverteeth. Let us pray. Lord, we come to you this morning in hope, yearning for something to change, perhaps, hoping that there’s something beyond just a call, that it’s not just a general experience that doesn’t actually shift our lives in any sort of way.

We pray we can be the type of people that listen, truly hear, and respond to it. Let us all live into our second half of life becoming your River Teeth, catching all of the beautiful, joy, and love, and life that comes from just letting you flow through, and around, and over, and under us. We pray all of this and so much more, in Jesus’ name, amen.