Rev. Lisa Horst Clark
June 3, 2018
1 Samuel 3: 1-20
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.”
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
OK folks. We’re starting with a quick quiz. What does the voice of God sound like? First option: it’s a giant booming voice when the heavens open, and sounds very deep. Second choice is the voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. That sweet, piping voice that calls us back to the truth and a true meaning of whatever it is that we’re in the middle of. Option number three: I have no idea. I am surprisingly not shocked by that response [that most of you picked option three].
God is not exactly corporeal with wind pipes and vocal chords, and so we have this sense that trying to listen to the voice of God is listening to something you’ve never heard before. And this is why I’m not shocked that if I were to ask you out of the blue, “when did you hear the voice of God,” that sometimes I hear “never” as the answer. And so I see why someone might say that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, that visions were not widespread. And this is why amidst the din and background noise and blaring sound systems, amidst the talking heads and the whirl of the clacking systems of this world, we sometimes need someone to take us by the arm and say “listen to this.” I don’t know, but this might be the voice of God calling you; calling you towards your greatest loves, your deepest passions, calling you towards a truth that is hard to face, or a love that is hard to miss. I don’t know if this is the voice of God, but I think you need to listen, and if you hear your name, say yes.
The reading today is from the book of Samuel. And whatever the future was going to look like, all they knew is that is wasn’t going to look like the past. It had been the time of judges in Israel, when the people had been led by leaders who had sprung up through years that had been at times chaotic and wild. And Eli had been a priest of the Lord at Shiloh. Now, in that time priesthood stayed in the family – it was passed down from fathers to their sons. And so Eli was a priest, and so were his sons, and we should be blunt here that Eli’s sons were terrible. They were corrupt and abusive. They took the meat that was to be sacrificed to God and they ate the best parts themselves. They sent servants to take offerings before they had even been offered to God, and threatened to take them by force. Eli’s sons were even known to do worse; to take advantage of the women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Eli’s sons were terrible. And they were deaf to their father’s pleas. He begged them to change their ways, and yet they continued. Eli’s sons were terrible, and Eli was only getting older.
In those days, the word of the Lord was rare. Visions were not widespread. But here’s what came into that midst. A woman named Hannah was barren, and when her prayers for a child were answered, she dedicated her son Samuel to God’s service. And while she did, she sang a song for the ages. She sang “my heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exulted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies because I rejoice in my victory. God raises up the poor from the dust. God lifts the needy from the ash heap and makes them sit with princes, and inherit the seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and he has set them on the world.”
Hannah comes, and she speaks a word. Hannah comes and she casts a vision. And then she leaves her beloved son to God’s service – and a great vision and a great hope. And here these hopes of God are resting; on an old man whose eyesight is failing, the patriarch of a corrupt institution; and a child who has grown up inside of its walls. Too old and too young to be much good for anything.
And so, my friends, tell me all the reasons why you would be a really poor vessel for the word of the Lord. Tell me about how you are too old. Tell me about how you are too young to have anyone care about your voice. Tell me about how you are too entrenched in this world, or how you are too far from the halls of power. Tell me how you have no time and are stretched too thin, or have too much time to know what to do with. Tell me how you are too rich or too poor, too far gone. Tell me how you have never heard the word of the Lord before – not even once. Tell me how rare the word of the Lord is these days, how no one has visions anymore. Because naming our own frailties or failings of why we might think that we as individuals are unsuitable might feel easy for some. A combination of self-deprecation or exhaustion or the Pacific Northwest cautious faithfulness that is nervous to have God doing too much. And I know that we might feel a little uncomfortable being put that much on the spot. And yet I look out at the world and the future that is going to look like something that doesn’t look like the past. I look out on years that are chaotic and wild. Where we can see abuse and corruption that feels deaf to our pleas. And where are we to be if the word of the Lord is rare? Where are we to be if the visions are not widespread? Because the people need a vision of God’s hope for all the people. The people need a vision of God’s love that is real and present. The people need a vision. And so maybe it feels overwhelming that God could see and work in you. And so we’re going to take a baby step, and say maybe if we’re not sure if God could be calling us, maybe we can see how God is calling each other.
Back at Shiloh: we have Samuel the young child who keeps waking up from his sleep to pester Eli. Samuel keeps saying “I’m here,” when Eli is clear he didn’t call him. And then Eli discerns something in the space between them that God is the one who is calling; that the voice that has been unnoticed and unrecognized in its current form. And so it is Eli who is able to tell Samuel what it is that he is hearing. In order to hear the voice of God it takes them both, as Eli needs to teach Samuel what the voice of the Lord sounds like, and to discern amidst the noise that yes, this is the voice of the holy. And Samuel is needed in order to listen and proclaim. It is because this unlikely pair are paired that the voice of the Lord becomes present; it becomes heard and known.
A church where I was an intern in seminary regularly worshipped around 95 folks on a Sunday. It was a solid, but not enormous, church. And that congregation while I was there had six members of the community who were in discernment along the path to ordained ministry. I know you’re saying, well, it was probably near the divinity school, and folks came for the school and then started attending. And that was true for one of them. For the other five, they had become involved with church, committed to its mission and ministry and heard a call to ministry there. And people were noticing this, and started talking to those five folks – what was it that led you to ministry? And each of those five told a story of a woman at the church; an older woman who had a knack of seeing moments when people were using their gifts. And she had pulled each of those five aside and said, “have you ever thought about ministry?” That was it – one comment, one time. But it opened a door for each of them to listen for something they didn’t know to listen for. One small comment about what to listen for, and five of them heard it. Now let me say, I think ordained ministry is just as holy work as all the ways we act in love and service, and all the ways that we are called. And I know this in part because this woman, she had a call to hear the word of the Lord. She had the spiritual gift to open someone’s ears to the way that God could be heard.
I’ve seen this happen here in all kinds of ministry – I have seen people say yes. Yes to starting a new ministry, or chairing a committee, or being a Stephen Minister, or accepting a role of service that stretched them to the realms of discomfort. And you’d be surprised to know the number of times it wasn’t just because they heard a tiny whisper and then proclaimed the truth. How many times it was because someone invited, or suggested, or affirmed “you might have gifts for this. I don’t know, but there could be a call here. Listen, because I see it in you.”
You may not know that on any given Sunday here in this church, we have six generations. Every living generation is represented here pretty much every week. Our church has folks that can tell you about WWII, the Silent Generation (which I wouldn’t necessarily call silent), Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and that generation that is still finding its name with high schoolers whose graduation we celebrated today. Six generations. By any measure it’s not actually supposed to work to have this many generations in one place. How do we communicate? We use email, but that doesn’t work for the elders, who don’t check their email, and for the teens, who don’t check their email. By any measure it’s not supposed to work. But instead of a spirit of criticism, what I see here is a spirit of affirmation of the ways that people see gifts of God at work in one another.
Patrick Doyle is not completely retired, so I still get to lift him up. After a generation teaching music in schools and another 22 years directing bells here, he still had two weeks of teaching our youngest children how to play music. And you can see in how he does so the joy that he brings and how that is reflected in the joy of the youngest in our midst. I think of Kathryn Blackley who led today – a young adult who’s been willing to step into leadership when we had this yearning that we wanted to do something about refugees, and we didn’t know what. And Kathryn has stepped in with the incredible logistical work of gathering and organizing the materials to set up apartments for refugee families that are starting here, with incredible spreadsheets that have led to four apartments to welcome folks into our community.
I hear about it when I talk to our young people about our elders here. Do you know that we have more than 20 folks over the age of 90? Including Shirley Croonquist, who checks our bulletins to make sure that she finds the errors that we in the office have made. I talk to folks in this church about our elders, and what I hear them say is how they look at folks with hope. How they look at the lives you all are leading, and it how gives them hope about what a full life engaged in the world, reflecting on the wisdom of years and dignity in grace can be. What I hear is how they see the spirit of God at work in our elders.
And I hear it when I talk to our elders about our children and youth. About the energy that they bring that can barely be contained. About how they are proud of the youth for leading the way with March for Our Lives, and they are proud to follow. About how the children’s effusive energy is a source of joy. And what I hear is how they see the spirit of God at work in our children and youth.
And so when I look at the world that cannot afford to be without the word of the Lord – we cannot afford to have the word of the Lord be rare, for without vision the people perish. And so if you have never experienced what you would call the skies breaking open and the thunder booming, or Linus calling you back to what it really means, then maybe instead, first you can reflect the ways that you have seen God call someone else. Maybe you can reflect the ways that you have seen that that voice has been present in our elders and our youth – our well-to-do and our ne’er-do-well. The ways that you have seen God at work in the voices that have been lifted up in our midst. And how God is at work lifting the poor from the dust, and bringing the needy from the ash heap to sit with princes, and to set new pillars on the earth or a new reflection. And so maybe if you can reflect to others how you see the spirit of God, and truth, and love, and compassion, and courage, and liberation at work in them, then maybe the word of the Lord doesn’t feel rare anymore. And maybe then it feels like you can hear your own name booming as well.