United Church of Christ

Listening, Speaking, Acting

Sunday, June 3, 2018
Second Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 4)

Focus Theme:
Listening, Speaking, Acting

Focus Prayer:
Holy God, you search us out and know us better than we know ourselves. As Samuel looked to Eli for help to discern your voice, and as the disciples looked to Jesus for your wisdom on the sabbath, so raise up in our day faithful servants who will speak your word to us with clarity and grace, with justice and true compassion. We pray through Christ, the Word made flesh. Amen.

Focus Reading:
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)

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.

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 3:1ñ10, (11ñ20)
Psalm 139:1ñ6, 13ñ18
2 Corinthians 4:5ñ12
Mark 2:23ó3:6

Focus Questions:

1. When have you heard God's call in silence?

2. When has another person helped you discern God's call?

3. Why do you think the Bible has so many "call stories"?

4. In what ways is our own time "a turning point"?

5. Why do you think God chose a small child to receive this call?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

Our reading from the Book of First Samuel is one of many "call narratives" in the Bible, stories about individuals who received a call from God: just last week, we heard the dramatic story of Isaiah (6:1-8) in the temple, having both a visual and auditory experience of God's call. "Who will go for me? Whom shall I send?" Isaiah responded with those familiar words, "Here I am. Send me!"

There are many "call stories" in Scripture that are less dramatic than Isaiah's but no less life-changing for those who receive them. There are those who resist the call (think of Job), those who have their lives completely changed (think of the Apostles), those who become "famous" and foundational as ancestors in faith (think of Moses and the burning bush) and others, like Samuel, whose story may not be as familiar to us as Moses' story is, but they nevertheless experience a profound sense of God's presence and guidance, God's call, in taking them where they may never have imagined they would go.

A little boy hears God's voice

In this week's text, the hearer is a little boy, Samuel, who is called to become a "trustworthy prophet of the Lord." John Rollefson draws a parallel between this story of Samuel and the story of Jesus as a lost little boy in the temple. He notes the similar phrasing between Luke's telling of that story (Jesus "increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor," 2:52) and the note on Samuel, as he was serving in the temple: "Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people" (1 Samuel 2:26). According to Rollefson, then, "A good call story is worth retelling," and this week's we hear Samuel's.

The lectionary at times seems to give us mere snapshots of biblical history, so we might miss how fraught this moment is for the people of Israel--although the text notes, ominously, that "The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." The priest, Eli, was old and tired and needed his rest. We don't get a sense that there is strong and visionary leadership at the helm of things. David McCreery calls this a "pivotal time in biblical history, as it marked the transition from the old tribal confederacy--in which Israel understood itself as a theocracy led by charismatic judges--to a monarchy led by Saul, David, and Solomon respectively."

An important moment

So this is a turning point, an in-between time, but one marked as always by God's presence: we note how important it is, in such a time, to be open and listening for God's call, however it is experienced. Samuel is not the wise elder with a lifetime of listening for God's voice; he was taken as a small child to the sanctuary at Shiloh and dedicated to God's service, and he had a lot to learn from the aged priest.

We may remember Eli from the story of Samuel's mother, Hannah. She was the beloved (favorite) wife of Elkanah who had trouble conceiving a child; when she was praying at Shiloh, pouring out her distress silently (but moving her lips), Eli noticed her rather judgmentally at first, but then with a measure of kindness (1 Samuel 1:12-17). Hannah promised God that, if given a son, she would offer him back to God's service (1:11), and that she did. (Then she sang her beautiful Song of Hannah, which is echoed in Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55.)

Listening for whose call?

And that is why we find little Samuel there in the tabernacle at Shiloh late at night, near the Holy of Holies, and listening for his mentor's call. We can certainly understand why the young boy would not presume to listen for the voice of God to come to him; not only was it "rare in those days," but Samuel was just a little boy, and why in the world would God call on him, rather than the more learned, more experienced ones who surrounded him? Of course, we've "heard this story before," when the unexpected, smallest, least powerful and important people are called forth and given authority and power and great responsibility.

I've heard this story so many times, and I suppose we hear it differently depending on where we are in our life experience and our life situation. Most stories in the Bible are about men, even young ones, and the stories we hear about women (most of them, unlike Hannah, are unnamed) are usually told in relation to those stories of men. Thus, we don't hear how Sarah felt when Abraham "heard the call of God" to kill her only child, the one she miraculously bore at an advanced age. We also might wonder how Hannah could bear to leave her little boy in the care of strangers, and we wonder if we could do the same.

A patient mentor

Another way to hear the story is to consider how irritable I might feel (at my age) if I were repeatedly awakened by one of my grandsons, for example, who thought I was calling him. Eli comes across as remarkably patient with Samuel, and the third time "is the charm," as the saying goes. He is finally awake enough to discern the possibility that God is speaking to Samuel over there in the temple, and I have to wonder, too, how he resists going back with Samuel to listen with him. If the voice of God was so rare in those days, I wonder how the elderly priest had the humility and willpower to resist listening, too.

James O. Duke writes of the "tenderness" in this story: "Eli, roused from sleep and at first quite at a loss about the situation, is no mean and nasty faith-based institutional ward keeper from a Dickens novel. He is kindly and, although slow on the uptake, offers the boy sound counsel. Also tender in its persistence and tone is God's call to Samuel, by name. This is not thunder, fire, whirlwind, or 'wizard of Oz' or 'raiders of the lost ark' pyrotechnics." Indeed, compared to burning bushes and angels around the throne of God, this encounter with the Holy is remarkably quiet and personal, though still powerfully compelling (and, we find out later, not good news for Eli and his family).

Samuel's response, and the rest is history

Samuel's response not just on that late night but throughout his life ahead embodies a wholehearted acceptance of, and response to, God's call to listen, to speak, and to act (that's why we have two books of the Bible bearing his name). Rollefson notes that he is the last judge and both prophet and priest, "a triple-threat, well qualified to kick-start, even if reluctantly, Israel's monarchy and midwife the story of God's covenanted people into its next political incarnation under kings Saul and David."

We may not make choices or receive a call that plays such a pivotal role in the history of God's people, but our hearing of, and reflection on, this ancient story (so unlike our own, perhaps) inspires us to consider how God calls each of us, in our own day. We are, each of us, precious in God's sight, and we are, each of us, called to play a role in the marvelous drama of God at work in the world.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and Psalm 139 are at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Eric Samuel Timm, Static Jedi: The Art of Hearing God Through the Noise, 21st century
"Little decisions over time make a big impact on our lives."

William Stringfellow, Count It All Joy, 20th century
"Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives self to anotherís word, making self accessible and vulnerable to that word."

Alfred Brendel, 20th century
"The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent'."

Chaim Potok, The Chosen, 20th century
"I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it."

Vernon Howard, 20th century
"Inner guidance is heard like soft music in the night by those who have learned to listen."

Hafiz, 14th century poet
"I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being."
and
"No one could ever paint a too wonderful picture of my heart or God."

Nanette Sawyer, 21st century (in The Hyphenateds)
"Imagination opens up possibility, but sometimes we do not dare to imagine something as beautiful as God."

Albert Einstein, 20th century
"He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed."

Lao Tzu, 5th century B.C.E.
"From wonder into wonder existence opens."

Thomas Carlyle, 19th century
"Wonder is the basis of worship."

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