This is my fifth time preaching at the SAS Alumni Weekend. The first was in 2007, at the invitation of our former head of school, Bill Wade. I took a look at that sermon while I was preparing for today. It was very long. I think I was trying to make the most of my one chance to preach in this chapel. I talked about all that SAS has done for me; what I learned, how I have tried to use it, and what a gift this place has been to me. Seven years later, I became the SAS chaplain. My Alumni Weekend sermons have been shorter.
Now, as I come to the end of my time as chaplain, I am not thinking of what the school has meant for me. After four years of teaching here, I find myself on alumni weekend thinking not about my own experiences of this place, but about our current students' experience; not what the school did for me but what they do for the world.
Picture 250 students in this chapel. Like Samuel, they are young people in the temple. Like Samuel, they are here because they have to be. Some of them are sitting at the end of the pews by the wall. They sit there on purpose, because if you lean against the wall, it's easier to sleep without being noticed. And just like them, the boy Samuel is in the temple, trying to get some rest. But someone calls his name – "Samuel! Samuel!" He goes to his boss, the priest Eli. But that's not who called him. "Go lie back down." Again he hears his name and goes to Eli; again Eli sends him back. A third time he hears the voice, and this time Eli realizes what's going on. "Go lie down; if you hear it again, say 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'"
In that interaction between Samuel and Eli you can read the mission of this school: to open our students' ears to the voice that calls them, and open their hearts to answer.
That's easy when it means they decide to try rock climbing as 10th graders and become champion climbers by the end of senior year, or when they take a pottery class junior year and end up applying to elite art schools, or discover a love for history that leads them into studies and careers they never would have imagined. That's all very impressive, a lovely description of how our students' lives can be transformed.
But the voice that calls young Samuel does not tell him to take up rock climbing. We stopped reading from First Samuel before the actual message, but God has bad news for the priest Eli, Samuel's boss: "I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever." In other words: "You're done, old man. You let things fall apart, you lost track of what's really important, you compromised your ideals, you let people slide because they were your friends and family, and now you're going to pay."
That's the flip side of telling kids to be open to the voice that calls them: you might not like what they hear. In fact, that will happen a lot. Young people have a particular gift for recognizing what is wrong and calling it out. So if you ask them what they think, you need to be ready to hear it.
This year I had my students in Introduction to Religious Studies read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own son as an offering. One of my students, after reading it, stormed into her living room with Bible in hand and said to her seminarian father, "Have you read this?!" She would not accept that the story had any moral value simply because it was from the Bible. She was horrified, rightly so, and she demanded an explanation. Students today will not settle for "the Bible says so." They call out the elements of misogyny, violence, and prejudice in Scripture that get in the way of God's message. If I, as their teacher, want them to hear the words of love and grace in the Bible, I need to be ready to answer their legitimate complaints. Their gift for speaking truth demands it.
When students disagree with the dress code, they will tell you and you will not like it. And even though you remember how you had to wear a collared shirt, or keep your hemline below the knee, or wear an actual uniform, you have to listen. They may be right.
They will challenge assumptions about gender and sexuality, about justice, and about the curriculum. And when they do, you have to listen, because that is what they are supposed to do. They are supposed to see what is wrong and give us hell about it. That is their job as adolescents. They are here to do more than learn trigonometry and read Heart of Darkness; they are here to make this school better than we can. Remember, in the story of Samuel's call the old priest Eli has begun to lose his sight. So do we. We old folks can't see what they can. We depend on them to show us what is right.
If we let them tell us, if we listen to them, they can make us better. They can make this school better, and they can make this world better; better than we ever could. Forgive me a nerdy moment, but as Yoda says to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, "We are what they grow beyond."
And this prophetic gift of adolescence is not an accident of biology. We should make no mistake: their challenge, their critique, and their judgment are holy things. They are prophecy, like the prophecy spoken to Samuel. They are God's words, God's message, spoken here. Spoken by faithful acolytes ringing hundred year-old Sanctus bells; God's message, spoken by students joking and flirting their way through the sermon; God's message, spoken by those who mumble, yawn, and snore against the wall.
And we are Eli. Still in charge, but not what we used to be. A good teacher knows that, and recognizes that we are dependent on our students if anyone's going to learn anything. I'd say I remember it about 25% of the time, but there are people at this school batting a thousand. And that is what we alumni can be proud of: that this school recognizes that every time we gather in chapel, the Samuels outnumber the Elis seven to one; that we are part of a place that hears in the voices of our students the very voice of God, calling for justice, renewal, and transformation; and that along with soccer, Spanish, and physics, our students are learning to bring a new world into being.