5th Sunday After the Epiphany – February 9, 2020
1 Samuel 3:1-18
There is a situation in which I would like for you imagine yourself this morning: corruption is rampant, and everything seems to be falling apart. Your leader is an ever-weakening, failure of a man with two astonishingly sinful and repugnant sons who always seem to do whatever they please, regardless of how abhorrent it is, and they never suffer any consequences for it. Also, no one is hearing from God anymore, and when God finally does speak, God speaks to you and informs you that God’s punishment will rain down upon this leader and his morally bereft household. You quickly learn that it is your responsibility to deliver this difficult news directly to the leader, who while not your father, happens to be the man who raised you. And by the way, you are eleven years old, a fifth grader.
And this is where we find ourselves in this morning’s text. Let us listen now to the word of God as recorded in the third chapter of the book of 1 Samuel, beginning with the eighteenth verse:
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.”
Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that 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.” Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So, Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
In the one-act play I described earlier, you are a boy named Samuel, whose approximate age comes from the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. The failing leader is Eli, the High Priest of Shiloh, in the ancient city in Samaria. His two wicked sons are named Hophni and Phinehas, and their sins include taking for themselves the prime cuts of meat from the sacrifices and committing adultery with the women who serve at the sanctuary entrance. Eli’s failure is that he refuses to punish his sons and allows them to continue with their wanton behavior. God’s eventual punishment will result in the deaths of all three men: Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas.
Earlier in 1 Samuel, Eli had encountered a woman named Hannah who was unable to have children, tearfully praying for God to grant her a child who she promised to dedicate to the Lord. Eli saw her praying but could not hear her such that he thought she was mumbling to herself because she was inebriated. Hannah describes her story – her desire for a child to Eli, who blesses her. She returns home and eventually becomes pregnant, giving birth to Samuel. As a result of her dedicating the boy to God, Samuel grows up assisting Eli in his sanctuary duties, and as such, Eli raises him.
There is an ever-present temptation with this morning’s text to over-domesticate it, to make it purely a cute story about the young boy and his wise and faithful mentor, where the moral of the story is how God sometimes calls with a “still, small voice” and how God’s call even extends to the little ones among us.
While this is all of course true, examining this scripture exclusively in that soft light limits its power and its ability to speak to us in ways that make clear what it means for us to worship and follow a God who calls, especially a God who calls us as individuals and as the Body of Christ to be a prophetic witness to the world, the kind of witness to which God calls Samuel in the verses I just read.
God’s call to ministry is a call to all people who know and love God, and it is a calling for laity and clergy alike. And yet, it is serious and often frightening, difficult, counter-cultural work. Towards the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, saying “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” No wonder it is true that throughout scripture, upon recognizing the voice of God, those being called do anything they can think of —everything from bargaining to running away, to avoid fulfilling God’s call!
And we, too, we often find ourselves responding to God with all manner of preconditions and suspicions. One thing the Bible does not reveal in today’s text is the voice inflection Samuel may have used in responding to God. Perhaps he leaped out of bed on that third try and said unto God, “SPEAK LORD, for your servant is LISTENING!”
Or maybe not. Perhaps there was some suspicion in his voice: “Speak…Lord? Your servant is…listening?”
The English word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, which means “calling.” In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was the first theologian to use that word in reference to the everyday work of the laity as well as the clergy. In her marvelous book The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor writes in a chapter on vocation of a time when she was speaking to a congregation about how the laity are God’s best hope for the world, only to hear from a congregant after the service, “I’m afraid I don’t want to be that important.”
It is so easy and will forever be so easy for us to use our calendars, our schedules, our to-do lists (and occasionally our children) as shields against God’s call upon our lives. We are just so busy. We tell God, “Just give me some time until this happens or that happens. You know everything, Lord. You understand how it is.”
And while I am sure that God does indeed know “how it is,” and while I am sure that God does indeed understand “how it is,” I am not yet convinced that when it comes to calling us into service to God’s kingdom, God necessarily cares “how it is.” The God who calls regards our busyness and suggests to us that perhaps we might want to rearrange some things, adjust a few priorities. When it comes to calling God’s people into service, God is going to call who God is going to call, and God is going to pursue who God is going to pursue, and God is going to utilize whoever God will, even if it is me, and even if it is you. And God has wonderful, divine ways to make us elegantly miserable until we acquiesce, as the scriptural witness attests. It was for this reason that Saint Augustine writes of God in Book One of his fourth-century Confessions, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
In her chapter on vocation, Barbara Brown Taylor also writes “Somewhere along the way we have misplaced the ancient vision of the church as a priestly people-set apart for ministry in baptism, confirmed and strengthened in worship, made manifest in service to the world. That vision is a foreign one to many church members, who have learned from colloquial usage that ‘minister’ means the ordained person in a congregation, while ‘lay person’ means someone who does not engage in full-time ministry. Professionally speaking that is fair enough; ordained people make their livings in ministry, and lay people do not.
“But speaking ecclesiastically, it is a disaster. Language like that turns clergy into purveyors of religion and lay people into consumers, who shop around for the church that offers them the best product.”
And friends, your life on this earth deserves better than that, as does the God who designed, created, and redeemed you and me and us. And God will pursue us, will make us divinely, elegantly miserable until we know this to be true.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was at a profoundly low point in my life and especially in my ministry, a terrifyingly dark place to be, one where I found myself questioning nearly every fundamental assumption in my life, and where my faith in myself, as well as my faith in God’s faith in me was all but gone. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
So, in desperation, I did something I had never done before: I sneaked off and I went on a job interview. Now I have to tell you, I had never actually been on a job interview, or at least, I had never been on a job interview where I was asked questions more difficult than “Do you think you can operate the register?” and “Can you work nights and weekends?” Remember, I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor since I was twenty-five. The closest I have ever come to a professional job interview was when I had my oral examinations for ordination.
To be completely honest, going in, I did not even know exactly what the job was. I think it had something to do with money.
On the morning of the interview, I was ushered into a bright, third-floor conference room with one wall-length window and a glass door. Over the course of the morning, four different men would interview me for about forty-five minutes each.
Throughout the majority of those interviews, I found myself just listening to the interviewers tell me about their lives. I learned about their upbringing, their work histories, their education, even their families. I just listened, as I have done for half my life in countless hospital rooms, living rooms, church parking lots, and funeral parlors. One interviewer even told me of the guilt he still bore as a result of his not being a better student in college.
After the interviews, as I sat in my car preparing to drive back to the church I was serving at the time, I can remember having two very lucid thoughts, thoughts I believe were delivered by the God who made me: one, there was no way I was going to get that job and two, it was like I heard God say to me, “Child, you are a pastor. It is not what you do. It is who you are. That listening you just did? It enabled your time with those men to be holy conversation, right there in the middle of an office park. That story about not doing well in college? You were not engaging in banter. You were hearing confession. Your call? It isn’t actually yours.” God said, “I composed that call. It is my call, not yours. You are but the respondent.”
And God says to us all, “Because it is my call, I will be the guarantor of it. I will equip you. I will lead you. I will walk with you. I will bring you through whatever I bring you to.”
“Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
Where is the restlessness in your life? Where is that elusive “peace that passes all understanding” about which Paul writes to the church in Philippi in your? What do you need to let go of in this life so that you can be who this calling God is calling you to be? What desire, what hunch, what passion, what purpose is following you everywhere you go, darting like a cat between your feet, leading you to those places where God would have you be? Where is your restless heart looking for rest this day?
The thing about our God is how unfailingly persistent God is, and just how relentless this God can be when it comes to engaging those who this God is determined to call. Reading this morning’s text, I am convinced that even without the assistance of Eli, God was going to call Samuel, and Samuel was going to respond, even if God had to keep him up all night long; calling his name again, and again, and again.
If the story of the calling of Samuel teaches us anything else, it teaches that some of God’s best calling comes when things are the most broken, the most screwed-up, when our situation seems most desperate and hopeless. And into these situations, God comes with a whisper, a persistent whisper that calls each of us by name.
How is God calling you today to use your God-given gifts to partner with God in healing this broken world? Half a life in this work has taught me this: God did not acquiesce to the excuses of the prophets in scripture, and God is not going to start so doing with you or with me or with Reveille. God will whisper our names throughout the darkness of the night. God will make our hearts restless, until we trust, until we surrender, until even through quivering lips we dare to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.