1 Samuel 3.1-20
2nd Sunday in Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
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 the LORD 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 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." 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 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. 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.
Traditionally, we speak of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter…. but I often find the Spirit as more of a Challenger. And Spirit comforts and challenges through the most mundane ways. This past Thursday morning as I sat drinking my coffee, waking up, checking the news and preparing to write my sermon, two news articles challenged me as I was thinking about our connection to the story of the boy, Samuel, called to be a prophet in ancient Israel. All week I had been considering the call of God to be a prophet as I chose hymns and wrote our meditative call to worship to evoke the theme of prophetic living.
The article that first gave me pause was from the Washington Post. It was titled “For some Christians the Capital riot doesn’t change the prophecies: Trump will be president.”[i] I knew we were deeply divided in Christianity, but I had not fully realized that there are Christians prophesying Donald Trump’s presidency, a presidency I have experienced as diametrically opposed to everything I hold dear as a Christian and an American. Religious scholar sources for this article say the people interviewed are practicing a neo-charismatic version of Christian faith that is even farther right in thinking and practice than the evangelical right wing. A Christian nationalism is conflating Christianity with patriotism. And their numbers are growing. The people interviewed were part of the crowd at the Capital on January 6th and their expressed intention in coming to the Capital was to pray that Donald Trump remain president, to show up for the prophecy they had received. Their prophets tell them that Trump is the Chosen One who will shut down an American elite class that is persecuting Christians and crushing what they believe to be Christian values. They are as passionate for their vision of justice as we are for our vision of justice. We have competing prophetic paths. It definitely feels as if the “true” word of the Lord is rare in our land, doesn’t it?
I wanted to write off these people as “kooks!” I wanted to say to myself, “They are delusional and uneducated. They have been duped by conspiracy theories. I know better, don’t I? I have a degree from Yale Divinity School. I can do proper exegesis of the scripture. I understand the ins and outs of biblical prophecy and it does not lead us to support someone proclaiming lies and misuse of power. I am ordained in the UCC! I know about true justice!” However, the Spirit challenged me with humility. I was challenged to try and see these Christians as people, not as evil others, even as I abhorred the violent actions of the crowd these folks were with. I was challenged to reach beneath their words to seek understanding of the true concerns of their hearts, to understand how they are my brothers and sisters in Christ, as foreign as they seem to me.
I pondered this moment, wondering, Have I just heard a word from the Lord? And I will tell you why: the word was humbling and challenging, ear-tingling if you will, and revealed to me something new and much needed that God was doing, at least within my heart. I also knew I could only participate in this change with God’s help, not on my power alone. I did not feel comfortable or triumphant. I felt fearful and confused in this revelation of my own prejudice and pride. Spirit challenged me: how would I take humble, peace-making action on this realization? My first action is to share the experience with you.
I find echoes of my experience in the story we heard just minutes ago about the boy Samuel and his first experience with hearing the word of the God. It seems the call to prophetic living is humbling and challenging and it cannot be silenced. It must be shared with others. Remember how the narrator begins our story saying that as Samuel was growing up, “The word of the Lord was rare.” “Vision was not widespread.” At this time there was no king or president in Israel. The priest, as prophetic presence, helped govern and lead the people because professionally, and one would hope personally, he was a channel between the human world and the Holy One. However, in the time of Samuel, Israel was being divided by greedy and power-mongering leadership. Sound familiar?
So, when Samuel humbly accepts the call to hear God’s word, he gets an ear-tingling, earful! The Lord gives him a prophecy condemning Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, younger priests who have been abusing their priestly power. These two are exploiting and seducing women who come to the temple to pray. They are confiscating the best cuts of sacrificial meat before the sacrifices are complete, thus, robbing the people of the expensive cuts of meat they have purchased to complete obligatory religious rituals. They are ignoring the warnings of their old father, Eli, who is trying to correct their immoral behavior. Thus, Samuel is given his first prophetic word from God, both painful and important. He knows it could get him into trouble. He only fearfully delivers it to his mentor and teacher, Eli, after much cajoling. “Your priestly house is ending,” says Samuel, “God is doing a new thing!”
What are new, ear-tingling thing is God doing that we are we called to hear as this committed community of faith? God is calling! And like Samuel discovered, the call will not necessarily be comfortable. It will be humbling. It will be a bit scary, maybe more than a bit, and outside our comfort zone. It may get us into trouble, good trouble in the words of the late senator from Georgia, John Lewis. UCC pastor, Donna Schaper, comments in an exegetical essay, on the story’s revelation that what God is going to do will make “both ears tingle.” She writes, “Since I hate sermons that make us have to be more heroic than we really are, I say…. Let one ear tingle with fear…Fear is spiritually legitimate….But listen now with the other ear…. Let it tingle too.”[ii]
Spirit’s ear-tingling challenge to me asked me to admit that it is harder for me to love these white Christians who are so very different from me than it is to love people of other faiths. There is my prophetic living challenge…how far can I live into God’s love….not condoning acts of injustice or violence…but extending my compassion, opening my heart to what I preach….that God’s love extends over all of us. And what actions will I take to extend God’s love to those so very different from me? I am asking for the courage to live into those answers as they come.
Now you may be saying to yourself…that is all very well for Samuel he was after all serving in the temple. Like you ministerial types, didn’t he sign up to hear God’s word and act on it? I’m just a regular person, not a prophet in training. And I say back to you…are you committed to the love and justice that was modeled by Jesus in his life, death and resurrection? Are you committed to – or at least concerned about - feeding the hungry, helping the homeless find a home, welcoming the immigrant, praying for peace, caring for the sick in body, mind or soul, nurturing the children and youth, being a voice for the voiceless, loving those cast out and cast down by our culture, saving our world from environmental disaster and global warming? Any of the above? If so, then I believe you are called to be a prophetic presence for God’s justice and love in our times. And I believe you are called to listen as attentively, as carefully as you can! What is making at least one ear tingle with fear? And the other with a new possibility?
The call comes at mundane moments. When we are just lying in our bed before sleep, musing over the day. Or drinking our first cup of morning coffee. We have an unexpected thought. A preposterous idea. Are you listening?
The second news article that challenged me on Thursday morning came from NPR. It seems that there is a restaurant in California run by an award-winning chef,[iii] of Top Chef TV fame. Though it is well-known, it is still struggling in the midst of pandemic as they downsize their business into predominantly take-out orders. One day not long ago they received an online breakfast order, paid for, with a message saying, “This order will not be picked up by the person ordering it. Please make sure that it goes to someone who needs a meal.” The chef who owns the restaurant was so moved that she posted the order message on Facebook. Within a few minutes, another order came into the restaurant, paid for, and with the same message. And another. And another. By now the restaurant has received almost 250 orders for food that is paid for by someone who will not pick it up and who wants the meal given to someone in need. This influx of orders is helping the chef pay her employees and helping others in her community not even connected to her business. Who started this? A teacher in Texas. Not a hugely rich, powerful person, but an “ordinary” teacher. And the love has come back around because someone, after discovering this teacher’s gift to the restaurant, went onto Amazon and saw her wish list of supplies for her classroom. That someone paid for all those supplies helping children they had never met.
A word from the Lord! A delightful new way of working together for the good of people! What if we as a country took this system of paying it forward and helping others as our primary way of working instead of being crippled by greed, selfishness and the lust for power over other people? Would we be as divided as we are now? Would we be better able to see and love and relate to those who now seem “other” as brothers and sisters?
Listen! The word of the Lord is always present! Our ears can always be tingling with the God’s word of justice and love! Listen! Follow. Act in Love. Amen
[ii] Donna Schaper, “Pastoral Essay”, 1 Samuel 3.1-20, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” Year B, Volume 1, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2008, 246
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
1 Samuel 3: 1-10
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
On this Sunday of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, it is important for us to take time to reflect on the life and impact of a great leader and visionary. Of course, we remember that MLK was a community organizing, a grassroots coordinator, and a national hero. What we often overlook, however, is that he was The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The Bible and its stories, especially the Old Testament in his tradition, would have been the inspiration for his life and work. Today, we have a story that I am sure MLK knew and lived.
The story of Samuel is one of miracles and God in unexpected places and direct communication. Before he was conceived, Samuel’s mother Hannah was found by Eli (the older priest in this story) crying on the steps of the temple begging God for a son. Eli, I am now convinced, must have failed Pastoral Care 101 in seminary because he assumes that Hannah is drunk and tried to send her away rather than help her. Hannah then proves to Eli that she isn’t drunk, and so Eli promises her that she will have a son… so Hannah dedicates her son to God’s service. Soon she gives birth to Samuel, and the minute he is weaned she brings him to the temple and gives him to Eli and the priests to take care of and bring-up. It is paradoxical because she prayed for a son then when she is given a son she gives him away. Let this be a lesson for us that nothing in the Bible is exactly as it seems. This is a reminder that the story we are dealing with today is not from our context or culture or our time.
Now, we catch up with Samuel when he is a young boy serving and living in the temple (he only sees his parents when they come for high holidays), and he receives a very usual alarm wake-up call! Some of us have odd alarm clock sounds (mine sounds like a cricket—I am now terrified of the sound of crickets), but this is especially weird. How many of you are woken up at night by God calling your name? Not many of us, right?
This is not normal for us, but it is a common theme in Biblical call story narratives of the Old Testament. Our passage today falls into a whole subgenre of Biblical literature called the “Call Story.” This is a genre of Biblical stories that is important to look at when we are talking about how God communicates or doesn’t communicate. While call stories in the Bible often have themes in common, no two are the same. This shows us, even today that each and every individual hears from God differently.
Last week, I was in Arizona at an educational intensive for the Next Generation Leadership Initiative (NGLI) of the UCC for “promising young clergy” (don’t ask me why I was invited…I have no idea). The focus for my class this year was on family systems theory, so there was a lot of sharing. All of us had some great stories to tell, and you know what? None of the 16 in my class and 64 total young ministers there had the same story or the same way God communicates with us. Likewise, none of the Biblical call stories is like any other.
So today, our job is to see what is unique about Samuel’s story, and then I want us to think about how it applies to our world today. Okay, are you ready? Ready to put our Sherlock Holmes hats on and start the investigation? Because there are three big things about Samuel that we need to pay attention to that are unique to this story and offer us clues to our own lives with the Divine.
1. Notice that God demands a dialogue. The first two times God calls his name, Samuel doesn’t respond to God, and Samuel rather runs to Eli. We can imagine Eli is getting tired of being woken up. Finally, Eli is probably so tired of being woken-up by Samuel that he says, “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.” This is fascinating. God won’t do all of the work when you are called to something. God may still be speaking, as we say in the UCC, but our God does not monologue. God is looking for a conversation, a response, and an action on Samuel’s part. So long as Samuel doesn’t tell God that he is listening, God won’t continue the conversation. God needs dialogue.
Question 1: What is God calling you to in your life right now? What is your response to God in your life? Is something keeping you up at night that you are too scared or don’t know how to reply to? What is holding you back? Remember, God is not a God of monologue. You need to say yes or no and engage with these questions rather than sleep through the alarm of God’s voice.
2. Alright, so this brings me to the second thing about Samuel’s call story that is particular to this account. Samuel needs help from an elder and a mentor. Unfortunately for Eli, if you keep reading the account later on, what Samuel has to say once he has listened to God has to do with Eli’s family’s sins. Sometimes the mentor is the one who has something to learn from the student, but I digress. The main point is that Samuel has to have help discerning how to respond to God’s call on his life. Samuel has no shame in waking Eli up not once, not twice, but many times. “Here I am, for you have called me.” The Bible doesn’t say, but maybe this is something Samuel does often! Unlike other call stories in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, Samuel goes to a mentor and an elder for assistance. This is something NGLI clergy are likewise encourages to do: develop mentoring relationships outside of our home church or home conferences to retain perspective.
Question #2: Who are some mentors or people outside of your own internal knowledge system, household, or person who you can ask for guidance in the calls or decision making processes ahead? Here is a hint: sometimes mentors are not older than you. In a multigenerational church, advice flows both ways. The second thing we learn from Samuel’s call story is that sometimes we need to ask others for advice, guidance, or insights to learn how to answer God’s call on our hearts that is keeping you up at night?
Who do you need to ask for advice from? On the flip side, pay attention to when in life you are called to be Eli—do not be annoyed by the questions, by being woken up at night by the discernment of a friend of mentee. In life in community, we are both Samuel and Eli.
3. Okay now for the strangest and coolest part of this particular story! So first, God is a God who wants or requires a yes from us—a dialogue. Then we see how in the story, the community, the mentors, the wisdom of others is essential to the discernment, and now we come to the best part that makes Samuel’s call unique and relevant for our lives. Verse 10: “Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Now the Lord came and stood there. God meets us where we are. God doesn’t give up on your purpose. You are valuable, loved, and followed by God. When Samuel doesn’t respond to simply being called, God tries a new tactic, a different approach for a different call: God comes and stands right by Samuel’s bedside and yells in his ears. “SAMUEL! Wake up!”
Question #3: Do you know that God won’t give up on you? Did you know that? I know that. Additionally, each of you is being called, no matter how old or how young (Elis and Samuels alike) to new adventures with the Spirit. I know that. I feel it in my bones, friends. Let me ask it again: Do you know that God won’t give up on you?
Let’s pull all of this together. On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend when we remember one in our own time who was called to something extraordinary, we need to all think about what God is calling us to do in this world. What is our greater purpose for a time such as this?
What the call story of Samuel reveals is that God is a God who is looking for a dialogue, a conversation, a two way street and requires your response. God doesn’t want to talk at you. God wants to talk with you. Secondly, mentors, community, elders, and getting advice from other people are good ways to figure out how to respond to God. Don’t be afraid to wake someone else up and alert him or her to your problem even multiple times. You are not in this, this current dilemma, and this Meshuggeneh life alone. Thirdly, and most exciting and unique to this story, know that God doesn’t give up on you and you have a purpose that God is moving through your being and your life. Are you all with me?
Let me now in closing take this one step further. A common theme in my preaching is what I see as disconnect between our lives as Mainline Christians (an imagined life that looks a lot like 19th Century Victorian Vermont) and the real life we struggle through on the other hand.
The disconnect I see possibly arising here is that you all, like me, might think that God is going to only speak to you when you are on a meditation retreat or sitting in silence, or staring into the actual physical face of a stranger. Here is the reality: What actually is most likely to wake you up at 2 AM? For me, it is a text message from one of you with an emergency or a call. A text from my mom… who wakes up at 5 in the morning and sends inspirational quotes to her adult children.
While we like to idealize how God communicates with us, just like we idealize God as having stopped speaking a longtime ago (that would be convenient), I have to tell you that the Divine Deity is more tech savvy than your computer programming grandchildren. While the divine can and does speak to us in voice and in spirit on those yoga retreats or palates pilgrimages, we also find God sightings and marking on text messages from a friend in need, in a Facebook post from a wise friend, or in the emails from a stranger reaching out for help.
Look for God in the text messages, in the emails, in the online materials. Our God sightings are no longer limited to face to face. Treat the texts and emails you write with the same care as in-person interactions, for it matters just as much now.
It is a brave new world. It is a world in need of new call stories to be told, and I think I know of just the congregation to tell their stories and to bring something new to a time such as this. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, Plymouth, Plymouth! And Plymouth said, “Speak for your servants are listening, reading, following.” We are ready for what God has to say. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.