1 Samuel 3:1-20 Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert 18 January 2015
How quiet can you be? Can you be still long enough to listen? I mean really listen. Not just to glean a couple of thoughts from a person so you can make a link to your next comment. Sometimes I am shocked at how poorly we listen to one another. One of you will come to me on a Sunday and ask me about my holiday or my children or my opinion on some church matter and I just launch forth without ever thinking to ask you about you. Or you tell me something while I am distracted, thinking of something else, so I miss it. Or one of you will share in class a deep thought or personal problem and another will jump right on top of it to tell their own story without allowing your thought or story any space to breathe, to be absorbed. Some of you will talk endlessly and in great detail, forgetting that by sheer space you are occupying everything, leaving room for no one else. Yes, I know some of you don’t even know what you are thinking until you hear yourself talk, but maybe you could have that conversation with yourself sometime or with one other person, rather than dominating the entire group. Listening is hard work. It requires more than the cessation of your own talking, but the active discipline of sustaining interest in another so you can ask good questions to keep listening. If we cannot sustain interest in another person who is physically present and talking to us, how can we possibly sustain in the Holy One who is harder to see and hear and understand?
One of the ways we stop listening is by dualistic thinking – instead of holding the complexities of truth in tension. We’d like simplistic answers when life truly is far from simple and when God is Mystery. Our ego wants the premature, immature security of an answer, a right answer, an easy answer. We heard this week that the Supreme Court is going to rule on gay marriage. A definitive fifty state answer will not solve all our problems, any more than the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made race relations perfect or Roe v Wade solved the problem of unwanted pregnancies. No, these kinds of social shifts are difficult, not simple. They take time and patience and lots of listening to one another and the Spirit of God.
Legislation, while significant, does not change people’s minds and hearts and souls. Being right about something is not as important as being rightly-related to others, even those who disagree with you. Friends, we are in different places on this issue and probably many others, but we must stay in communion with each other. When we discuss it, we will do so with utmost respect and love. Our culture has forgotten the call to listen, so we polarize. We stop listening and stop caring about anyone who is different from us, sees the world differently than we do.
Father Richard Rohr says, "People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It's the people who don't know who usually pretend that they do. People who've had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don't know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind."
In our story today we read about Samuel learning from Eli to listen for the voice of God and then Eli, learning to accept difficult truths from God through the boy Samuel.
1 Samuel 3:1-20
1 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. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 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. 4 Then theLord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 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. 6 The Lordcalled 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.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lordcalled 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. 9 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.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 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. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 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. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”15 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. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 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.” 18 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.”
19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. (NRSV)
Imagine being a boy working for an older priest in the temple. Being scared to tell him the message you had heard in the night. Eli pressed him, “What did God say to you? Don’t hide anything from me, boy, or God will do something bad to you.” That’s a pretty scary place for Samuel. He’s thinking, “Let’s see – do I want Eli mad at me or God mad at me?” But Eli did not get mad. He trusted God’s word coming from Samuel. He had perceived the authenticity of the voice in the night. He knew he himself was not calling Samuel’s name. He had not heard anything in the night. He was getting old. Hard to see. Hard to hear. Must have been a message from God to the boy. That’s why he told him to respond to God, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
The message was not a huge surprise to Eli. He knew his sons were a huge disappointment. He knew in his heart of hearts he should have restrained them, but the message that this mess known as his family was not to be repaired was disappointing. There was no sacrifice he could make to recover the damage his sons had done. In one sense, Eli already understood Samuel to be the replacement son, in spiritual sense. Samuel had a servant’s heart, an obedient and willing spirit. Samuel had the sensitivity to hear God’s voice.
What about us? Are we listening for the voice of God like Samuel? Can we hear God’s voice and have the courage to share what we’ve heard, even if it is a message that makes others uncomfortable?
Can we hear God’s message, even if we, like Eli, are not the primary receiver of the word of truth? Can we hear God’s message even if it is the difficult news of God’s disappointment with us or those whom we call family? Can we hear God’s truth from someone who has less experience, less maturity, less power than we have?
Eli empowered Samuel by acknowledging that God might be speaking to him, by encouraging him to listen, and by asking for and accepting his message from God with humble trust.
We should all be Elis in the church, nurturing the young ones in the faith, building strong relationships with them so we can encourage them to listen for the voice of God and then respecting them enough to listen to what they have heard from God, instead of thinking we know it all because we are older and wiser.
We should all be Samuels, listening carefully enough that we cultivate both the ability to hear God speaking, and the courage to speak the truth we have heard in love. I wonder what might happen tomorrow, if you went through your day, saying every moment, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
If you read scripture and prayed and meditated with some good consistency, and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” If you listened to others, saying to God, “Help me to hear your voice, Lord, speaking to me, as I try to carefully listen to this person.”
What made Martin Luther King, Jr. such a powerful figure was his ability to hear messages from God, as a young man, and to communicate difficult messages with courage and love. This ability was cultivated by his roots in the church, where he heard the message of Christ who proclaimed good news to the poor and release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.
MLK’s ability to hear and speak the truth was cultivated by hearing stories of faithful young prophetic voices like Samuel’s. Hearing God’s voice was critical for the prophetic witness of Dr. King. In January 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he received a threatening phone call late at night. He couldn’t sleep. He went to his kitchen and took his “problem to God.” He was at a breaking point of exhaustion and about to give up. He spoke to God and says that in that moment he experienced the presence of the Divine and “could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’” His fears and his uncertainty ceased then and there because God spoke and gave him “inner calm.” God provided the interior resources for him to do the work God had called him to do – challenging work of righting wrongs. He needed God to speak first. Then King could act. He listened prayerfully then proclaimed prophetically. Prayer was crucial in propelling the Civil Rights Movement. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (Luke Powery, sermon)
I think it is safe to say that all of us want to be wise, and to make a difference with our lives. We cannot set out to change the world, but only to seek to be faithful in all we do, to listen for the call of God to us that we might speak and live well as followers of Jesus Christ.
Wisdom comes from the hard work of keeping oneself completely open and vulnerable to the truth that comes from God by listening prayerfully to the Spirit speaking to us through Word and Sacrament in the communion of the Saints. By that I mean you cannot just sit in your living room, reading your Bible alone. You cannot just show up for worship. To be a faithful Christian is to live a unified life of discipleship – disciplined listening to God by being in genuine communion with others who are listening to God. We need each other. We need deepening relationships of trust – like Samuel and Eli had, so that when one does not realize God is speaking, the other does. And when one cannot bear to see the truth, the other is able to speak it assertively with respect.
Life is full of unexpected turns, huge disappointments and losses, confusion and sadness, freedom, stress, angst, pleasures, and joy. The measure of a good life is one of listening well, which is synonymous with caring well. Listening well to God. Listen well to others. Listening well even to one’s own self. Because when all of that listening is done well, we discover we are fulfilling the Great Commandment to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor even as we love ourselves. Are you listening?