1 Samuel 3:1-19
The story of the boy Samuel is generally interpreted as an empowering and inspiring lesson about call. I want to suggest today that it is also a story about a still-speaking God. It is also a story about listening, and how our failure to listen and see and heed God’s call can have dire consequences, not only for our own spiritual journeys but also for the well-being of entire peoples and nations.
The boy Samuel had grown up in the temple, dedicated to God’s service by his grateful mother. His whole short life had been spent learning and carrying out the rituals of institutional religion.
And yet the word of the Lord was rare in those days, the story says. We might take that to mean that God was silent; we might even relate to the people’s fear that God had abandoned them or that there was no God.
I think it’s more likely that the word of the Lord was not rare at all, but that God was actually speaking to them all the time. I think the more likely problem was not a God who didn’t speak but a people who didn’t listen or didn’t like what they heard.
And so they chose to believe that God was silent. And so they figured they were on their own. And so they did whatever they pleased. And so the nation descended further and further into a spiral of corruption and empty religion and alienation from mystery and Spirit and love, which led to even further corruption and hatred and violence and heretical religion and . . .
. . . Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before.
But here’s the thing: Despite all that, God had not given up on them. Still, God kept speaking, longing for someone to listen, longing to love her people back into relationship, health, wholeness and justice.
And who better to turn to than a child? Young children have not yet lost their innocence; they have not lost their sense of wonder; their hearts and their minds and their ears are still open to mystery and love and possibility. Children are still in touch with their need for something and someone beyond themselves.
And so it is that the not-so-rare-at-all word of the Lord comes to Samuel one night as he is lying down in his bed near the Holy of Holies. It is a clear voice, and it calls him by name. And even so, it is confusing to Samuel because, really, who in their right might thinks God is going to call them by name in a clear and audible voice?
God calls Samuel three different times. And each time Samuel jumps up and runs to his surrogate father, the old priest Eli, and says “Here I am!” The first two times, Eli just tells Samuel that he’s hearing things and should go lie down and go to sleep. It is only after the third time that God calls and Samuel goes running to Eli that Eli realizes what is happening.
Then our persistent God calls Samuel a fourth time. And this time Samuel says, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
I love this story. I love a still-speaking God, a loving presence who keeps knocking at the door, waiting for us to answer. And I firmly believe in the concept of call. I love that every three years this story rolls around on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, because Dr. King listened and responded to God’s call again and again and again. And who doesn’t love to be inspired by the life of Dr. King?
But this year feels different to me. The events of the past year and especially the past two weeks have me thinking about all the different ways God speaks. This year I am thinking about all the ways and all the countless times God has spoken to us and our nation about racism and white supremacy, but we haven’t been listening. This year I am more aware than ever of all the ideologies, leaders, and institutions—including the church—who have told us that when it comes to hearing God speak about matters of racial injustice, we should just go back to bed and be quiet.
Recall with me some of the many times and many ways God has forever been calling us to repent of our racism and to renounce white supremacy:
Way back, even before there was a United States of America, in 1688, when the Quakers of Germantown, Pennsylvania, drafted a statement against slavery and, later on, when the abolitionists began arguing their case, was that not God calling us to wake up to the evils of slavery?
When Harriet Tubman was successfully leading slaves to freedom by the light of the North Star, was that not God calling us to recognize all people as her children?
When hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the Civil War, was not God calling us to stop treating our human siblings as property?
When Black students sat down at Southern lunch counters, and John Lewis led the Bloody Sunday march across a bridge in Selma, Alabama, was God not calling us to recognize voting rights for all people?
When Martin Luther King spoke about a dream, was God not calling us to be true to our founding ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all? When Fannie Lou Hamer said she was sick and tired of being sick and tired, wasn’t that God calling us to recognize the dignity of all people?
When Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a self-appointed vigilante who was acquitted for the killing, was God not calling us to wake up to the ongoing dehumanization of Black people? When Tamir Rice, a mere child, was killed by police who shot without even stopping, and then stood by while he died, was God not trying to shake us awake?
When a Black pastor and eight Black church members were killed in cold blood by the racist white man they had welcomed to Bible Study, was God not speaking to us through broken and outraged hearts?
When white supremacists and anti-Semites marched on Charlottesville with tiki torches and long guns and a young woman died, was that not a clarion call from God about the dangers of a hateful movement legitimized and encouraged by a narcissistic president?
For how long has God been calling us in the night, trying to wake us up to the belovedness of all God’s children? Surely we could go back at least as far as Jesus, who healed Gentiles, empowered women, forgave sinners, and reserved his temper for religious people who oppressed the poor. For how long have we been hearing voices, only to settle back into our privileged lives and go to sleep? For how long have we been complaining that the word of God is rare in our times?
Over the past year, God’s wake-up calls have gotten louder and more persistent, as more of the inhumanity of racism and the ubiquity of white supremacy have been revealed. Consider that no one has been held accountable for killing Breonna Taylor while she slept in her own bed. Consider the nine-minute video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Flood until he had crushed the very breath of life out of him. Consider how federal troops were called in to use whatever means were necessary to move Black Lives Matter protesters out of the way so Donald Trump could stand in front of a church holding a Bible.
And still we have so often gone back to sleep. Still we have wondered what we could or should do.
And then, on January 6, white supremacists, anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, and others invaded the U.S. Capitol and tried to steal an election. Do we hear God’s wake-up call now? Are our ears tingling yet?
Many of us have been committed to anti-racism ministry for some time now. I know many more of us are making active efforts to learn more about white supremacy and how to be anti-racist, and I thank God for that.
I know many of us are deeply shaken by the events at the Capitol and really worried about what might happen in the coming days. Yes, it is sad when churches must be warned of possible attacks from white terrorists, but it is even sadder when, after 400 years of white supremacy, our neighbors of color live with such danger every day.
Like you, I prefer to hear God’s still small voice of love. Like you, I like to think of God’s voice as some kind of mystical experience or as a gentle, persistent nudge of grace and love, mercy and redemption that awakens us to our purpose in life.
But we are so sleepy. We are so comfortable with the way things are. Truth be told, most of the time we are just fine with the word of the Lord being a rare thing.
And so sometimes God has to yell to get our attention. Usually God is working overtime to be heard, in everything from a baby’s first laugh to a bird’s sweet song and music so beautiful it makes us weep. And sometimes God’s calling comes in the chants of Black Lives Matter protestors. And if we listen with our hearts, we might be able to hear God calling to us in the cries of the poor.
In the wake of the attack on the Capitol and widespread threats of further racist violence, churches in Washington, D.C., have heard God calling in the night. This weekend they have hung new banners outside their buildings, big banners that say, “Our Witness Remains: Black Lives Matter.”
There are individual callings, and then there are the callings of the church to follow Jesus and callings all human beings we share, callings related to what it means to live as God’s people and what it means to be fully human.
God has told us, beloveds, what is good. And what does the Lord require of us but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God? And in every injustice, in every act of racist violence and oppression, our weeping God is calling us to give our lives over to love so that all her children might fully live.
Let us together say, “Here we are, Lord, for you called us.”