To Be Called – Jan. 17, 2021

To Be Called

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

I Samuel 3:1-20

January 17, 2021

Main Idea – We are called to listen, to speak, and to act.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Last Sunday we were still reeling from the riot at our nation’s capital.  We needed to be reassured that the chaos we witnessed there and elsewhere was not the final word and that God is still in charge.  We needed to be reminded of our role as witnesses and speakers of truth. In this season after Epiphany we are exploring what it means to be called by God.  Last week we affirmed that Jesus’ baptism was a new beginning in which we are called to participate. Today’s text from 1st  Samuel is a call story and through it we are called to listen, to speak, and to act, in accordance with God’s call.

The story of the call of Samuel is familiar to us. It is a charming story with which parents, who have kids that wake them up in the night, can commiserate.  The story reminds us to listen for God, to make ourselves ready to serve God, and to commit ourselves to God even when it is hard.  We remember that Samuel had spent his childhood in the Temple.  Even though he knew the rituals and the teachings of the Torah, the text tells us that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” (3:7) “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (3:1) Everybody was just going through the motions.  No one expected God to speak.  But God spoke to Samuel, patiently and persistently until Samuel and Eli recognized who was speaking.  The text actually says that God “came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And each time God called Samuel’s name, Samuel said, “Here I am. … Speak, for your servant is listening.”” (3:10)

When we tell this story in Church School, we end the story here because the call of Samuel does not lead him to preach cheerful, happy sermons.  God says to him, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” After hearing God’s words, Samuel lies awake all night.  How in the world could he say such things to the person who had raised him and taught him all he knew?

In our church school retelling of this story, Eli is the kindly old priest who helps Samuel understand God’s call.  And that is true, as far as it goes, but Eli was also a powerful leader whose two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were corrupt and violent.  They took Temple offerings for themselves.  They threatened those who came to worship, and they assaulted women who worked in the Temple compound.  Eli knew this but he did nothing about it.  “I know they are my sons, and I raised them, and I taught them all they know, but there is nothing I can do.  They are incorrigible.”  By refusing to hold them accountable, Eli protected them and enabled their misdeeds.   And so, God holds Eli to account.

This is the message God gives to Samuel.   “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”  Another translation says, “Listen carefully. I’m getting ready to do something in Israel that is going to shake everyone up and get their attention. The time has come for me to bring down on Eli’s family everything I warned him of, every last word of it. I’m letting him know that the time’s up. I’m bringing judgment on his family for good. He knew what was going on, that his sons were desecrating God’s name and God’s place, and he did nothing to stop them. This is my sentence on the family of Eli: The evil of Eli’s family can never be wiped out by sacrifice or offering.” (I Sam 3:11b-14, The Message) Wow!  What a difficult message for a child to convey!  Samuel’s call was to listen to God and to speak God’s truth, even when it was hard.

For Eli, it was a hard truth to hear but he does not deny or try to deflect blame. He does not shy away from the judgement spoken by Samuel.  He encourages Samuel to share what Samuel does not want to share.  Eli resignedly waits for what is to come.  He is old and tired.  He can’t see any other way to be, so he says, “O well, It is the Lord; let God do what seems good to God.” (3:18).

Now here I take issue with the story, because in other parts of Scripture, when God makes such dramatic judgments, those judged speak out, change their behavior, and God relents.  We remember Abraham interceding for Sodom, Moses pleading for the Israelites, and the people of Nineveh repenting in the book of Jonah.  But Eli makes no effort to speak back to God.  He is too tired and too set in his ways.  He recognizes that God speaks to Samuel but he does not believe that God will speak to him.  Eli comes to a tragic end. After learning that his sons are dead and the Arc of the Covenant has been captured in battle, he falls over backward and breaks his neck.  Despite serving in the Temple for his whole life, Eli dies in grief and despair.

From Samuel and Eli we have both positive and negative examples of what is entailed in following God’s call.  From Samuel we are reminded that God is persistent in speaking to us and that God often speaks through those whom society disregards.  Samuel spoke God’s truth even when it was difficult.  Throughout his life Samuel was so committed to God that our text tells us “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (3:19)  In our world today we can see the example of Samuel in the work of Malala Yousufzai, Greta Thunberg, the young people who organized against gun violence, and the thousands of people who peacefully protested this summer for racial justice.  They heard the call, they spoke out, and they acted, even when it was hard.

Sadly, the example of Eli is among us as well.  When one has power, it becomes easy to make excuses, and rationalize away anything that calls one’s power into question.   Eli did not expect to hear from God and so he did not take God’s warnings seriously.   He did not challenge his sons’ negative behavior nor did he take steps to protect and care for those his sons injured.  In our world today we see many examples of this; media figures who spread falsehoods and incite anger, politicians who use fear and prejudice to get votes, even church leaders who align themselves with the cynical and corrupt.   We have seen many of these people claim no responsibility for what happened in DC.  Despite their years of fearmongering, turning a blind eye toward corruption, and tacit approval of violence and hate, they now say, “We had no idea such things could happen!”

This week we learned of new threats of violence against Washington, DC and against every state capital.  Yesterday, the UCC and ELCA Lutheran churches warned their congregations about threats made against progressive and black churches.  Armed protests are planned for today, may be happening right now!, and for Inauguration Day.   The threats to our communities and to our democracy continue.  The idolatry of Christian Nationalism continues.  We are living in a moment when the Christian Church is being called to reject complacency, nationalism, and fear, and to stand up for justice, peace, and love for all.  To be clear, Jesus is not a Democrat nor a Republican. All “real” Christians are not on one side or the other. However, Jesus never calls for violence or intimidation (such as an armed protest). In fact, when Jesus’ disciples raise weapons to protect him in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells them to put away their swords (Matt 26:52).  Jesus always calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to care for the vulnerable and the outcast, and to speak the truth, even when it is hard.

 It is providential that today we lift up the memory and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If he were alive today, he would be heartbroken, but sadly, I don’t think he would be surprised.  

Martin Luther King’s beginnings were like those of Samuel.  He grew up in the church as the son of a pastor.  As a young man, just out of school, one year into his first pastorate, he became involved in the Montgomery AL bus boycott.  Throughout his life he called for all Christians and people of faith to listen and follow God’s call.  Dr. King’s words continue to speak to us and to challenge us.  In his last Sunday sermon, preached at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, Dr. King preached “We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters]. Or we will all perish together as fools.  We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.” (Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, March 31, 1968  A Testament of Hope, p. 269)  Later in that same sermon he preached “There comes a time when one must take the position that it is neither safe, nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.  I believe that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old spiritual “We ain’t goin’ to study war no more.” This is the challenge facing modern man.” (A Testament of Hope, p. 276-7). 

We are called to listen to God, and to speak God’s word, and to act as God directs, even when it is hard.  Our nation and our world are in desperate need.  We are called to listen to those who may seem strange to us.  We are called to speak the truth in love to those who are afraid and those who have been misled.  We are called to act with love and hope and generosity.   Even in our scattered pandemic lives we can speak out and support projects and programs that lift people up rather than drive them apart.  We can share stories of courage and hope on Facebook, and counter posts that spread mistruth and fear.  We can reach out to our neighbors, offering help as needed.  As a church we can work with other churches and community partners to strengthen our communities; feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, comforting those in distress.  The work of the church continues.

As we follow God’s call, we can be assured that God is with us, guiding us, supporting us, and sustaining us. 

Let us pray,

Speak to us Lord, guide us in your ways and lead us in your service.  May all that we do be a blessing, to you, to us, and to the world.  Amen.