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The Rev. David Minnick
Sunday, 18 January 2015
Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51
Sermon 01-18-15 I Samuel 3: 1-18 John 1:43-51
The call of Samuel is not a Bible story I would imagine a great many people are especially familiar with. It happened a long time ago and there are so many other stories in Scripture describing encounters between God and humanity which grab our attention. Yet it is a story that has much to teach us. It offers us a valuable lesson in how to prepare ourselves to hear God’s message for us and how to respond in faith. And this same lesson also sets before us the witness of Eli waiting gracefully for God’s will to be done.
It is worth reading today, or some other time in the week to come, the first two chapters of I Samuel. These chapters set the stage, they tell the stories that make today’s lesson so rich; the inspiring story of Hannah giving birth to Samuel, long after many would have given up hope of bearing a child; of her song of joy and glory; of Samuel’s consecration to God through service to the priests of the Temple; of the high priest Eli and of his sons corrupt and wicked behavior; and of the prophecy that comes to Eli of tragic death in his family. All this happens in the first two chapters, the chapters which precede today’s lesson. Today, we hear of Samuel, who despite living in the Temple for several years, had not yet heard the voice of God, hearing three times in one night, a voice calling him. Three times he gets up and runs to Eli’s bedside in response. Until Eli finally realizes that it is God who calls Samuel, and Eli who instructs Samuel what now to do.
Eli’s advice to Samuel is good for us to remember today as we ponder and seek to open ourselves to God. In a nutshell, Eli tells Samuel to lie down, listen carefully, and learn to respond.
Lie down! There was not much to distract someone lying down in the dark in the Temple. No fluorescent light shining on the window, or clock radio lighting up the minutes as they roll by, one after the other. In the dark, as one sense is diminished, the others are elevated. Hearing becomes more acute, the skin is more sensitive to temperature. Closing our eyes as we pray is as close as we can come to lying down in the darkness. And so, Samuel is more prepared to hear God’s call.
There is a wisdom for all of us in Eli’s advice to go lie down. I suspect most of us, in our busy efforts to get through the day often pass up those chances to sit down and listen. There is so much to do each day, and it is easy for us to label a possibility that which God calls us to make essential; to see as a luxury that which is as critical to a full life as food, water and rest. Slowing down enough to sit and let our mind rest, and open our heart to God’s presence and leading. We all know people, perhaps ourselves, whose lives are so full and busy, that there is not time to speak to and listen to God each day. And yet to look critically at how we spend our days is see that there are ample opportunities in every life for quiet times.
Some may argue, “But we are so busy doing the things that God wants us to do. Earning our daily bread, raising families, serving on church committees, et cetera.” While all of this is necessary and good, and deeply blessed by God, let us not fail to remember that God creates us as human beings, not human doings. It is in our being, not in our doing, that we are shaped to become who we are. Much of the struggle in the Reformation was in response to the false teachings of the time, which were being preached as Gospel, that one could earn or work for their own salvation. We are not saved from a life of meaninglessness by what we do, but by God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. And our response to that gift of grace is to live life, full and abundant, to be all that we are blessed to be and to become.
We see this modeled for us by Jesus, who several times in the Gospels, is recorded going off by himself, getting away from the crowds and the disciples, to follow Eli’s advice. To lie down, to listen carefully and to respond. In several weeks, we will enter a new season of the church year, the season of Lent. Lent is, in many ways, a season of lying down and listening.
While Samuel lay there in the dark, Eli instructs him to listen carefully! As has been noted by many preachers, “Before Samuel could become God’s mouthpiece, he had to become a listening ear.” Or as one very wise person once said to me, “I never learned anything by talking.” Just as we need a place to lie down, so too do we need a place to listen.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that he were a doctor who could write a prescription to save the world, he would prescribe silence. We live in a time and culture that seems intimidated by silence. Kierkegaard noted this three hundred years ago, long before all the creature comforts of our lives that so often comfort us with noise.
In the years prior to my first call to be an interim pastor, I spent time working in a number of counseling centers, where I spent so much of my clinical time listening to people. Long ago, I came to appreciate what many experienced counselors have taught for years. Namely, that many who come seeking counseling know what the answers are to their dilemmas, and just need the process to take place by which their answers, ideas, or insights come to the surface and are voiced, validated and confirmed. Much of the value of counseling comes from the experience of being heard.
Carl Rogers, the founder of a school of non-directive counseling, once remarked in his clinical work, he would at times listen so intently to what a person spoke of, that at the end of the hour, when it came time to write up his notes, he could not remember what was spoken of in the first half of their time together. To have that experience of being listened to so intensely, and in the process, deeply understood, can be wonderfully validating.
One of the first, of many mentors in ministry for me, once remarked to me that he believed there was a shift in the role of the parish minister in the last few decades. That pastors, for centuries, had their traditional roles in the organization and work of the local congregations and knew what was expected of them, but that much had changed in America churches after World War II. Nowhere was that shift so noticeably recorded as the language which clergy used to describe their calling. For in the church which blossomed in the years after World War II, increasingly parish ministers began to speak of going to the “office” where for generations before they had gone to their “study.”
Those two words spark a variety of images. One of a place quite busy and active, the other of a place of peace and contemplation. There is quite clearly a need for both in our busy lives. And the parish ministers I know, who have been most effective in their ministries and in finding satisfaction in their lives and in their families, have been those who have managed to maintain both an office and a study, sometimes in the same room. And perhaps most importantly, have managed to use them both for the purposes for which they were designed.
The third piece of advice which Eli offers is to respond to God after being spoken to. God seeks an answer from us in response to God’s call. The challenges that God sets before us many times appear to be more that we suspect we are capable of completing. We remember Jeremiah’s appeal to his youth as a way out. “I do not know how to speak the words you call me to speak, for I am only a boy.” Yet let us not forget Isaiah’s response to God—“Here I am, send me.”
Responding to God’s call seems particularly relevant on this Sunday, the Sunday of Martin Luther King Day weekend. As we in America are encouraged and challenged anew in recent months to explore and seek to remove the residue of racism throughout the world as well as that which may linger within our hearts, today’s lessons have a certain relevance.
The lesson from John is a reminder of the bigotry which was alive in Jesus’ day. When Philip finds Nathaniel and shares the good news that the long anticipated prophet had come in Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel’s comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is a reminder of the prejudice that existed within the Jewish community of that day. Nazareth was a rural area, a hick town, and no one could imagine that a prophet of God could come from such a back water area.
We are reminded throughout history that every child of God, regardless of race, gender, nationality or where they call home, has the potential to change the world.
When I was in seminary, the story was told by professors who had once taught him, that when asked how he ever found the energy to go for hours on end, day after day, in the challenging ministry he led, that Martin Luther King Jr. was known to comment, “I could never do it without spending an hour a day in prayer first.”
It’s hard for us to believe that someone with such a demanding schedule could carve that amount of time out daily, but the priority of prayer was in many ways, the fuel for the pursuit of justice. In his day, Rev. King helped to broaden the understanding of prayer from personal piety to a means of responding to God and following his call.
This final lesson, the overwhelming lesson which is woven throughout this Scripture like a brightly colored thread is the importance of dialogue. God deserves an answer to the call set before us. Even if the answer is a question or perhaps even an argument. Even if our answer is “No,” we owe it to God to respond. We are called to speak together, and to take the time to listen to one another. For time and again, we know through church history and our own life experiences, God speaks to us in a rich number of ways and through a rich number of people.
A new year is always a time for new habits. Give thought to including among your new behaviors these days a deliberate intent to carve out time each day to seek God where the mystery of God can be found. And to find the time to sit down, listen carefully and respond boldly to the God who has blessed you with birth, redeemed you through the life of Jesus, and sustains you with a Spirit that will lead and guide you to life everlasting. Amen.