This morning we hear stories of calling and knowing. God knows us as we are knit together in the womb, Jesus calls disciples to follow him and they know him, recognize him, God calls to Samuel and Eli knows it is the Lord and tells Samuel to listen.
A reading from I 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.
Usually we are told the story of Samuel as a simple story of God’s calling and how it is easy to miss. These texts point to a longing for our own call. Sermons are filled with stories of God’s calling us to a vocation, a purpose…. We often hear Frederick Buechner quoted as the best definition of a call to vocation, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Let’s remember though that Samuel was a child. He was maybe twelve years old when God spoke to him. And rather than this being a youth group, mountaintop experience, he had no idea who was speaking to him. He was probably not aware of his own deep gladness or the worlds’ deep need.
And yet, God spoke to this young boy.
This story is less about calling and more about transformation. This story of Samuel is about ending and beginning. It is an end of an era that was full of spiritual distress, God’s word had not been heard in a long time. It is an end to religious leaders who were corrupt, greedy, deceitful. It is in this ending time where God speaks. In the midst of desolation and despair, God speaks to Samuel. It is not just a call, though we know that it is the beginning of Samuel’s life as a prophet. It is a directive to bring a message of judgement to Eli. And it will begin the transformation of Israel.
For Samuel, that had to be a harsh reality. He had to tell Eli the truth about what God had said. It would be difficult for any of us to tell our mentor, or our boss some disturbing news from God. Imagine Samuel must tell Eli, the person who has given him shelter and food, who has taken care of him since he was a young child, who has been mentor, father and priest, that God’s judgement is true and will be fulfilled.
It is a measure of Eli’s faith that he handles this news so well. He is not the cause of the desolation, the corruption, the lies, but he is the religious leader and father to his own sons who are to blame. The responsibility, the accountability is his to accept. So Samuel spoke the truth and Eli listened. Transformation was beginning. And we hear in the last verses of the story today that as Samuel grew, he continued to speak the truth of God’s word to the people of Israel and God did not let any of his words fall to the ground.
It sounds lovely, uplifting, hopeful but we know it was not easy.
The people were in despair at the ruin of their religious leaders. Eli’s family is destroyed for their corrupt leadership. The Philistines would soon take over the land and steal the Ark from the temple. It would be years before the people of God were in a better place, when they have a long awaited King to lead them. Yet even in this place of grief and fear and anger, Samuel the prophet, continually speaks God’s word.
With transformation there is always an ending or many endings, and a beginning. And both are important. We find ourselves in a similar place right now. Our nation and the world in chaos and despair. It has been a year of incredible natural disasters, a global pandemic, racial injustice, and political and economic division that rivals a civil war era.
And we sit in the season of Epiphany, that time when we hope for a new beginning, the new year, resolutions, a-ha moments. Yet, this year feels less hopeful. Almost 400,000 deaths in the US from the virus, vaccines are not happening as quickly as we thought, a president who incites violence and perpetuates lies, insurrection, impeachment…it has been quite the chaotic start to a new year.
Through our faith we know and believe that love and mercy is the way of God. We believe that healing and reconciliation are coming. AND, there is a lot of truth telling that must come first. Like Samuel we must speak truth to power.
There has been much talk of moving forward, stopping the divide, unity and reconciliation. But we can not skip over the work of grief, accountability, and change. We can not skip over the work of anger, responsibility, and transformation.
Ally Henny, is a writer and speaker on racial justice. She reminds us that “Calls for unity without massive reform often results in marginalized folks being even more oppressed.
It’s easy for people in power to build a unity that consolidates that power and serves their best interests.
Make no mistake, unity without reform serves the interests of those who are already in power more than it will ever serve oppressed folks. Unity is often used as a way to protect the status quo.
Unity without accountability is not real unity. Unity without accountability is an endorsement of abuse.”
The work we have to do, the hard work that we all have to participate in is here and now. We can not ignore it, we can not glaze over it, it will not go away.
We have to sit with the anger and grief and despair, study it, learn from it. It is untangling our deep roots in racism, working to change systems that have always been unfair, condemning white supremacy …this is the work we must do. It requires strength and courage and commitment to become the transformation we long for.
This is the weekend when we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and I would be remiss to not mention his name this morning. I think he would agree it is not enough to mention it only on one day, or one weekend. We must know these names and read the words from people who have come before us, who have spent their lives doing the work of change, the work of transformation, people who have been in despair and still held onto hope: Sojourner Truth, John Lewis, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Alice Walker, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Dr. King, who said,
“There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted… Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future…
When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform [dim] yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
“Where do we go from here?” speech by The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967
For a beginner to antiracism, the young reader, or those who don’t really like to read, start here:
God Has a Dream, Desmond Tutu
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, Jason Reynolds
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Just Mercy, Byran Stevenson
How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi
For those who are in the midst of antiracism work, but are missing parts of the history, go a little deeper:
Just Mercy, Byran Stevenson
Stamped From the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi
Women, Race and Class, Angela Y. Davis
Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X
Where Do We Go From Here, Martin Luther King, Jr
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
March, John Lewis