SJF • 2 Epiphany B 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
Samuel said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” +
Many of you who are parents know just how hard it is sometimes to call children. Whether you’re calling them to dinnertime, to bed, or to get up and get ready for school, seldom does a single call suffice. The first call, it appears, simply conveys information, rather like the chime of a clock which one can note or ignore without the fear of consequences.
The second call is a bit more intense, perhaps raising in the one called a dim awareness that they may indeed be the one being spoken to — a bit like a phone ringing in the distance, that you can’t be quite sure is yours, or might perhaps be in the next apartment. Or you might wonder, “Is that my ringtone?” Surely I’m not the only person to use, “Who let the dogs out. Woof. Woof.”
But all of us here are familiar, either as the source or the object, of the particular tone of voice that develops on the third attempt to call a child. Not the finest coloratura soprano has the flexibility that suddenly infuses a parent’s voice on that third yell up the stairs, or down the street, or across the hall. That third call to dinner, or to bed, or to get up for school, conveys far more than simple scheduling information. It leaves no doubt as to who is being called, and who is doing the calling. Oh my yes; it carries all the intensity of a warning siren, the strength of a foghorn, the urgency of a fire alarm, and the authority of a police whistle. Speaking of telephone ringtones, perhaps the most effective I ever heard, went off in my office, coming from the side coat-pocket of a young man who was there as a potential bridegroom, for marriage counseling. He and his bride-to-be were sitting there quietly, as I was seriously explaining to them the commitments and responsibilities of matrimony, when suddenly, from his coat pocket, a voice emerged, saying, “Will you answer the phone! Will you just answer the damn phone! Answer the phone!!” Well, whether you are the one issuing that call, or the one receiving it, you know that somebody means business!
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In our reading from the Old Testament today, we heard the story of the Lord’s call to the boy Samuel. Now, notice that unlike most children, Samuel responds immediately to the very first call, and to the second and the third calls, even though he doesn’t understand precisely who is calling him. It is not the child who is ignoring God’s voice, it is the old man, the priest Eli.
Why is that? Why, of all people, can’t the Lord’s priest hear the Lord’s voice? The Scripture tells us, after all, that Eli was blind, not deaf. And yet it takes him three times to perceive that it is the Lord who has been calling the boy Samuel. Only on that third urgent call does the message, delivered through a child, sink in.
Why is it that God chose to speak to the child in the first place, rather than to the old man? Well, God answers that question. He tells young Samuel that he is going to do something that will open up everyone’s ears, and make them tingle to boot! The reason he has spoken to the child Samuel instead of to the priest Eli is simple: Eli has allowed corruption and blasphemy to profane the house of God. He has done nothing to stop his wicked sons from stealing the sacrifices for their own use, and as punishment God will wipe out Eli’s house off the face of the earth. Is it any wonder that God chose to speak to an innocent child rather than a corrupted elder?
No doubt God had tried to get through to Eli, and to his sons Hophni and Phinehas, but finally even God seems to have given up: for “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” After the third and the fourth and the fifth and the hundredth time yelling upstairs, or down the street, or across the hall, does even God get tired?
No, God doesn’t grow weary; but rather turns his voice in another direction, to speak to those with ears to hear. With the appearance of Samuel, God renews the call, renews the effort to get through, to get the message across. Imagine God’s joy in finally being heard, the joy in hearing that child say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
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We all of us here are God’s servants, called and commissioned by God to service, in many different ways And God has spoken to us many times over the years, both as a congregation and as individuals.
This church (or the wooden one that preceded it) will have been here for one hundred fifty-six years this July, and the word of God has been heard here often. Nor has it been rare in our day. The servants of God have heard that word, some of them perhaps more clearly than others; some of them getting the message on the first call, some on the second, others not until that insistent third; some of them have answered the call more readily than others when they heard it than others. A very few perhaps over the years have even decided the call was for someone else, letting the phone ring and ring, paying no attention, and drifting off to spend their Sundays with the newspaper or on the golf course or at the mall, or in bed.
But thanks be to God that Saint James Church has survived a few Eli’s and even an occasional Hophni or Phinehas. Thanks be to God for the folk who are loyal, listening and obedient to God’s voice, loyal and obedient Samuels.
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We can continue to be like Samuel in various capacities. We can continue to be like Samuel in his eagerness, responding to the first call even before properly understanding who it is calling him. We can be like Samuel in his perseverance, responding to the second, and to the third call with equal and unfailing fervor, even when someone literally says — Go back to sleep! We can be like Samuel in his patience and attentiveness going back that last time, after we’ve been told to go back and lie down, and placing ourselves at God’s disposal, saying, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
But we can do more. This first part was just picking up the receiver, pressing the “answer call” button. The truly awesome task after hearing God’s voice, is doing what God asks. And in this, we can be like Samuel in his commitment and honesty, carrying out God’s command to bear what he must have known would be a heavy and sad message for old Eli, who had been a father to him.
Samuel’s eagerness and perseverance, his patience and attentiveness, and his commitment and honesty, are a model for us as a church. Like Samuel we can seek the Lord with eagerness and perseverance; like Samuel we can wait upon God with patience and attentiveness, and like Samuel we can do as God asks of us with commitment and honesty.
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It sometimes takes a Samuel to hear and then bear the voice of God to others in a tone that they can hear. It takes the eagerness and perseverance, the patience and attentiveness, and the commitment and honesty of a Samuel to reach out to those who can not hear the good news of hope for the future because they are so caught up in the sins of the past or the confusion of the present.
Sometimes it will take the voice of a Samuel, a young prophet filled with patience, peace, and charity, a prophet who is not afraid to challenge those who are set in their ways, and may even think they’ve got God on their side, even though they haven’t really heard his voice for a long, long time. Martin Luther King was such a prophet. He confronted systems as corrupt as the temple was under Eli and his blasphemous sons. But Martin confronted those evils of a land that considered itself a democracy, and yet was so unfair; a land corrupted by self-conceit that we were better than anyone else. Martin Luther King confronted those evils, those misperceptions, those sources of pride, with the witness of a Samuel, the clear and persistent, but nonviolent and loving witness of one who seeks the well-being even of those who hold him in contempt; who, in short, followed our Lord’s command to love even those who hurt him.
We may not be called to be Samuels in the dramatic way Martin Luther King was. But to respond to the call from our Lord will mean setting aside some things that may have preoccupied us. Not that they are unimportant, but that they may not be what God wants us to be spending our time on just now. God may have other plans for us, if we will pause for a moment to hear his voice.
If we earnestly seek to hear God’s voice, things that seem so terribly important will come into perspective. We will see greater things than these, these things that have so occupied us. We will see new visions, new possibilities, new opportunities for mission and ministry that we were too busy to notice before. If, like Samuel, we seek the Lord with eagerness and perseverance, wait upon him with patience and attentiveness, and follow through on his commandments with commitment and honesty, he who is faithful will not forsake us. We will hear God’s words of promise; we will see great things. Truly, truly, I say to you, if we follow God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, with eagerness and perseverance, with patience and attentiveness, with commitment and honesty, if we, seeking, trust, we shall, trusting, find: not only shall we hear, but we shall see; we will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, who is our Savior, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+