Monday, June 11, 2012

Call on Line One (1 Samuel 3:1-10)

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.”

Many of you know and have interacted with Leslie Wilson, our office manager.  If you call or stop by the church office, hers is the face you’ll see and the voice you’ll hear first.

One of the things that I am personally most grateful for about Leslie is that if you want access to me, you have to go through her.  This is her role as a gatekeeper.  I have bad news for salespeople and solicitors of all kinds who “just want a minute” of my time – Leslie isn’t going to let you through.  She knows if you’re calling from a call center, she is trained to listen for that delay and click of a robo-call.  If someone calls or stops by and wants to speak to “The Reverend,”  “The Pastor,” or “Andrew,” clearly they don’t know me, and they don’t get in.

Sometimes, of course, this has humorous consequences.  Earlier this week, my good friend Pastor Mark Muckler from Mouzon UMC came by so we could head out to lunch together.  He rang the buzzer at the back door, Leslie answered the intercom, and goofing around he said, “Yes, Is the Reverend available?”  Leslie was on her way to go downstairs and answer the door to see who it was, and she said, “I’m gonna go see who it is and get rid of them – they asked for “The Reverend.”  I told you she takes her job seriously!

In today’s text from 1 Samuel chapter 3, God keeps calling, and calling, and calling, and can’t quite get through.  God is trying to get ahold of Samuel, and he keeps calling him by name, but we are told that Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and so he had no clue who was speaking to him.

But the problem clearly predates Samuel.  We are told in verse 1 that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  On top of that, Eli, the old priest, is going blind.   The symbolism is ripe for the kind of parody you’d see on Saturday Night Live.  A priest with failing eyesight!  C’mon, really?  No wonder visions were rare!

Enter Samuel onto the scene.  He is living with Eli, the old blind priest and serving in the temple because a few chapters earlier, his mother, Hannah, prayed for a son, and agreed that if God gave her a son, she would give the son back to God.  That doesn’t seem fair; shouldn’t the boy get some choice and some say-so in the matter?  Shouldn’t he get to grow up to be whatever he wants to be?  Maybe he wants to be a shepherd or a sailor or a tentmaker or a carpenter or something the world desperately needs - an honest politician?  Why should he be thrown into the temple and raised to a lifetime of service to God without even being consulted?  It’s so . . . un-American.

Hannah’s promise may appear rash or arbitrary, but it is akin to what we do in baptism, whether we are baptizing a child or an adult.  In baptism, we declare a life as no longer belonging to the individual, but to God.  When the water is poured and the Spirit is invoked, we may as well be stamping “Property of God” across the chest of the person being baptized.  Our baptismal liturgies confirm the call and blessing of God upon the life of that person.  When parents bring a child for baptism, they are proclaiming, as Hannah did, that our children do not belong to us, but are given to us by God, and we give them back to God for God to do in their lives whatever and however God desires.  Similarly, Hannah gave her son, Samuel, to the Lord.

By the time we catch up to the story in our text for today, several years have passed and Samuel is a young boy, no more than 12.  He is lying down in the temple in that place between sleep and awake, and a voice calls to him in the night: “Samuel!  Samuel!”  Obediently, if not somewhat begrudgingly, the boy jumps out of bed and says, “Here I am! You called me!” as he scurries into the room of Eli, the old, blind priest.  “Silly boy!  I didn’t call you!  Now quit bothering me and go back to bed!”

The scene is vaguely familiar to anyone with children in the home.  The adults are tired and the child won’t stay in bed.  In slapstick comic fashion, not once, not twice, but three times the child shows up in the adult’s room when he should be in bed.  But finally, the light bulb goes off in old Eli’s head, and to his credit, he finally seems to get it, summoning up the last bit of his mojo right near the end to do what he was supposed to be doing all along.  And yes, the gears in his brain are surely a little rusty; after all, God has to call Samuel three times before Eli remembers that the Lord sometimes does this sorta thing.  In verse 9, he says, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  They say even a blind squirrel still finds a nut every now and then.  Even a blind, old man whose spiritual sight dimmed long ago still discerns a vision from God every now and then.  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread - but neither was completely extinct.

Many interpretations of this text set up Eli as both the foil and the fool, but let us not overlook the positive contribution to the story he makes.  Remember, Samuel hears God’s voice, but he does not recognize it on his own, he doesn’t know who it is, and he doesn’t know how to respond to it properly.  Dottering old Eli tells him all he needs to know.  His eyes were almost dim, but not quite - there was still enough of a flicker of God’s Holy Spirit within him to help young Samuel hear the call of God.

Eli tells Samuel to go back and lie down.  In other words, to be still, to be quiet, and in the dark.  He tells Samuel to go to a place where he can’t see or hear anything else, where there is nothing to distract him from hearing and responding to God.

So it is for us.  When it comes to hearing a word from God, sometimes we simply need to stop, and wait, and sit in the silence, and listen for God.  Sometimes we need to lie down in the dark and be still and discern what God is speaking.  For goodness’ sake, we need to stop making our own noise, too.  When the word of the Lord is far too rare and where visions are not nearly widespread enough, as in the days of Eli and Samuel, whenever there is the perception that God is no longer sharing a word or a vision, it is not that God has stopped speaking, but that humans have stopped listening.  The absence of a word or vision from the Lord has more to do with our human refusal to listen than with any divine reluctance to speak.

Very often, listening for God requires listening to each other.  One of the oft-overlooked but crucial details of the story of the call of Samuel is that both Samuel and Eli had to listen to each other for God’s call to be heard.

I think one of the great disservices the church does to itself - scratch that - I think one of the greatest sins the church commits is that often we don’t listen to each other.  Hearing the call of God in the midst of a Christian community requires that we listen to each other, and when we don’t, the results are literally faith-shattering.

Let me give you an example from an article I read this week from someone describing what happened in a recent church service he visited.  You can read the entirety of the article on our church website.

“I was recently in a church service where the message of the sermon was about the intergenerational representation of congregations, and one of the points was that previous generations needed to be willing to listen to the stories and voices of the younger generations as well.

“Now at some point in the midst of this great message the children in the Sunday school class had been taken outside to play in the grass with some balloons, and you could hear their laughing and shrieks of joy and surprise outside the windows of the sanctuary.  What an appropriate backdrop for such a message!

“And then it happened.  An older gentleman in the congregation stood up, walked clear down the side aisle, opened the door to the church yard and told the children that they needed to quiet down because a service was taking place inside.  During a message about generations needing to be willing to listen to one another, some guy actually got up and told the younger members of the church to shut up.”

Aside from being a really mean thing to do and a complete missed opportunity, my guess is that was a congregation in which the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread.  I don’t even want to know how long it had been since anyone had sensed the Holy Spirit there!  But what happened in that church on that day could have been avoided by a close reading of this text we’ve been listening into today.  The success of the call of God in today’s text hinges on the willingness of the generations to listen to each other, and share with each other, and trust each other.

Young Samuel shared his raw, unbridled, experience of God; old Eli shared his mature, structured, understanding of God.  Both were necessary in the story in order to hear from God, and what I want us all to realize is that neither side had the totality of God’s interaction all to themselves - young and old needed each other.  The story is only complete because of what both brought to the table, and because they could listen to each other and trust each other, they were able, together, to discern the voice of God.  Eli and Samuel had to listen to each other for God’s call to be heard.

Friends, God is speaking all the time.  God is relentless in calling.  And here’s the great thing - all Christians are called into ministry!  Not just pastors and seminary professors and church officials and other so-called “professional” ministers.  All Christians are called into ministry!  Church reformer Martin Luther called this “the priesthood of all believers,” we Methodists refer to this as the “ministry of all the baptized.”  The terms are diverse but the sentiment is the same - all those who follow Jesus are called to be in ministries that further the cause of Christ, that promote healing, wholeness, and reconciliation, and that help bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

On a day like today, Missions Sunday, we are reminded in real and concrete ways that we are all called to be in ministry.  The financial commitments you have all made today and will make over the coming year provide the resources needed to support those who are making a difference in people’s lives - around the corner and around the world - in the life-giving name of Jesus.  And there are no shortage of hands-on opportunities to serve and engage in the reconciling ministry of Jesus - so many places where we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those around us in ways large and small, and I am so grateful to be the pastor of a church who cares so deeply and so passionately about those outside our walls that Missions is in our blood.

You may not have thought about it this way, but what we do in Missions is in response to the call of God on the lives of individuals in our congregation, and our congregation as a whole.  You see, the call of God to all people in every generation is consistent and simple:  First, listen.  Second, do.  That was how it happened for Samuel, for prophets and apostles and saints through the centuries and for us today.  First, listen - for the voice of God, for the instruction of God, for the call of God.  Second, do what God tells you to do.

The first task is to listen. In a world full of noise - much of it self-generated - one of the most important spiritual disciplines we can cultivate is simply to listen for the voice of God.

God is still speaking.  God is still calling us all by name.  The question is whether we are still and quiet enough to hear that call.  Are we listening to God?  Are we listening to each other?  God is speaking your name today, because God has a call upon your life.  When God calls our name, the response is still the same as it was for the boy Samuel in the middle of the night in the temple: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  If we’ll do that, the word of the Lord will be abundant, and as for visions?  There’ll be plenty.

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