Samuel was young. He was just a boy. And Samuel did not have what you would think of as the typical living arrangement. Samuel did not live at home with his parents, he did not live with his grandparents, he didn’t live with any family at all. Samuel lived in the temple with the old priest Eli.
The way this came about was that Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was well advanced in years and still childless. She had prayed and prayed for a child when God heard her prayers and gave her a son whom she named Samuel and dedicated to God. So when Samuel was old enough, he went to live at the temple with the priest Eli, learning to work in God’s service at the temple. It doesn’t sound like that fun of a boarding school, but that’s the way it happened.
One night, lying in bed, Samuel hears a voice. “Samuel, Samuel,” the voice calls out. Samuel goes to see what the old priest needs. But Eli has not called Samuel. He tells him to go back to bed. It must have just been a dream or something. But Samuel hears the voice again, and again tells Eli, “Here I am.” But again, Eli says that he has not called Samuel. So Samuel is sent back to bed.
And then it happens yet a third time. And this time, Eli perceives that God must be the one speaking to Samuel. He tells Samuel that when he hears the voice again, to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does as Eli instructs, and God speaks to him. This is the call of the prophet Samuel.
To be real honest, it’s kind of a scary story. As a child, I would hear this story in Sunday School and feel bad for Samuel, this little boy living what sounded like a sad and lonely life in this cold, dark temple where his mother visited him once a year, to bring him a new coat. There were pictures of his mother bringing him a coat and Samuel was smiling and looked happy, which didn’t seem quite right to me. Even though it involved a little boy, it wasn’t really that cheery a story for a kid to hear.
As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate it as a great story, because it turns the tables on what we would expect. To whom would God speak – a veteran priest, or a little kid? Samuel wasn’t even a Levite, which meant that he was not eligible to ever become a priest. Yet God spoke to Samuel.
Although, when we read the whole story, God was really speaking to both of them, and both needed the other in order to hear God. On his own, Samuel did not comprehend that God was speaking to him. But the message God had for Samuel was a message of judgment on Eli’s family. His sons were corrupt and blasphemous and made a mockery of the priesthood, and Eli had sat idly by and let it continue – he was complicit in it. God had a message for Eli, but he needed Samuel to hear it. God had a message for Samuel, but Samuel needed Eli to hear it. Both Eli and Samuel needed the other.
That is often the way it works. We can have a hard time hearing God all by ourselves – we need each other. Young Samuel needed the experience and maturity of Eli, who perceived that God was speaking. But somehow, Eli wasn’t hearing God himself - maybe he wasn’t really listening – and it was the boy Samuel who gave him God’s message.
No matter what our age, we all need some help in hearing and responding to God and we all need support and encouragement in living our faith. Our New Testament scripture is about Nathaniel, one of the lesser-known disciples. Nathaniel is only mentioned in John’s gospel.
Jesus has gone to Galilee and found Philip, and asks Philip to follow him. For Philip, following Jesus means inviting his friends to follow too, and so he goes to his friend Nathaniel and says, “Come and see the one the prophets spoke of – Jesus of Nazareth.”
And Nathaniel says, “Are you kidding me? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nazareth was not exactly the cultural center of the universe. It was not known for producing important leaders, and certainly not messiahs. Imagine somebody saying, “Come and see the long-awaited messiah, Bernie from McCallsburg,” and you get the idea. Yet Nathaniel learns that he has indeed come face to face with the kingdom of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s because of Philip. Without Philip, Nathaniel doesn’t come to Jesus.
Most of us need help hearing God’s call. Most of us need someone walking alongside us as we follow Jesus.
John Robert McFarland was an acquaintance, pastor of the Methodist church in a neighboring town when I was a pastor in Illinois. Sometime after losing track of him, I read a wonderful article that he wrote.
John Robert grew up very poor, on a farm in southern Indiana. He had an older sister named Mary Virginia – everybody called her Mary V. She got a job in the city 30 miles away. Mary V. had been away from home a couple of months when the phone rang—it was 2 long and 2 short rings on the party line – and a voice said that Mary V. was in Deaconess Hospital, her kidneys were failing, there was fluid building up in her lungs, and she had from 3 hours to 3 days to live. The family did not have a car, and so Uncle Harvey drove up from Evansville and took the family to the hospital--all except for John Robert. Somebody had to stay to feed the animals, milk the cow, and take care of farm, and that somebody was him.
Secretly, he was glad. He wouldn’t have to watch his sister die. John Robert sat on the stool to milk the cow and he prayed. If only God would save his sister, he’d work out a deal. He didn’t really have any bargaining chips; all he could offer was himself. He knew that God wanted people to be preachers. If God would save her, then he would become a minister. He would preach.
Lo and behold, word came that Mary V. was getting better. It was totally unexpected. And she recovered completely. The doctors didn’t know what had happened – they had only given her painkillers, as there was nothing else they could do. Yet the illness disappeared as mysteriously as it came. And the doctors used that word – they said it was a miracle.
John Robert felt like he had been tricked! Mary V. wasn’t supposed to live. He had never thought he would actually have to keep his end of the bargain.
He didn’t want to ask the preacher about it, so he asked Aunt Nora. She was the only real theologian he knew – she played the organ at Francisco, 6 miles away. John Robert explained to her why Mary V. got well. And he asked her questions. “Did God make Mary V. sick to get me to go into the ministry?” Yes. “Would he have let her die if I hadn’t said I’d be a preacher?” Yes. “Will he come back and get her if I don’t?” Yes.
John Robert said that he didn’t really believe Aunt Nora - even a 14 year old farm boy knew better than that. But somehow in all of this, he was called.
We don’t have the advantage of seeing Jesus face to face as Nathaniel did, and not many of us are called in such dramatic a fashion as Samuel or John Robert McFarland. But something they all shared was that it took another person to help them sort out the call. Philip invites Nathaniel with this wonderful invitation. “Come and see,” he says. Philip doesn’t have it all figured out, he isn’t condescending, he doesn’t tell Nathaniel, “This is the way it is.” He simply tells him about Jesus, Nathaniel expresses skepticism – Jesus is from Nazareth, after all – and Philip says, “Come and see.” Decide for yourself. Nathaniel does – Philip is his friend, after all - and as he learns about Jesus, Nathaniel follows.
Old Eli helps Samuel to understand that God is speaking to him. He points Samuel towards God and helps him receive the call. And even if Aunt Nora’s theology was suspect, she was there for John Robert McFarland. That’s the way it is for most of us. We aren’t called all by ourselves, we are called together.
In the church, we need one another and we depend upon one another. The church is to be a family, a community of faith, and we are to welcome others as brothers and sisters and love one another and care for one another as a family.
We are called together – that is, we discern God’s call to us with the help of others, as part of a community. Together, we hear our call. But we are also called together in the sense that we are called to be together. We are called to community. We are called to care for all of humanity.
Today is Martin Luther King’s birthday. If you ask somebody who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, or if you go by what you might hear or read in the media, you will probably be told that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great civil rights leader and social activist. And this is certainly true. But at the heart of it, Martin Luther King was a Christian pastor. We take pride in the fact that he was a Baptist pastor, and in fact was an American Baptist pastor.
King popularized the term “Beloved Community.” As he fought for justice, the goal was not to defeat his opponents, not to bring down the oppressors, but to bring about reconciliation. King loved and prayed for his enemies.
The church is certainly called to be a Beloved Community, where there is peace and welcome and reconciliation are freely offered, but King extended that idea to all of humanity. Our concern is not simply to be for ourselves and those close to us. King understood that we are indeed “called together.”
King wrote an essay called “The World House.” He wrote,
“Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” This is the great new problem of [humankind]. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. . . All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.”Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people share in the wealth and goodness of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because human decency will not allow it. Racism, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
What King said about those considered his enemies was very powerful. As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent action. At a victory rally following the announcement of Supreme Court decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s buses he said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [people].” King actually followed Jesus’ admonition to “pray for your enemies.”
Eli and Samuel needed one another. Nathaniel needed Philip, and there were no doubt times when Philip needed Nathaniel. In the church, we all need one another. We are a family. And Dr. King would tell us that we are part of a World House, a Beloved Community, and our goal is to bring even enemies into the Beloved Community.
Peter Arnett was a CNN commentator and reporter. He tells of a time he was in Israel, in a small town on the West Bank, when a bomb exploded. Bloodied people were everywhere. A man came running up to Peter holding a little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Peter to take her to a hospital. As a member of the press he would be able to get through the security cordon that had been thrown around the explosion scene. Peter, the man and the girl jumped into his car and rushed to the hospital. The whole time the man was pleading with him to hurry, to go faster, heartbroken at the thought the little girl might die.
Sadly the little girl’s injuries were too great and she died on the operating table. When the doctor came out to give them the news the man collapsed in tears. Peter Arnett was lost for words. “I don't know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.”
But the man said, “Oh, no! That girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was a Palestinian. But there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or a son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.” (told by Tony Campolo in Let Me Tell You A Story.)
We are all part of a great family. We are called together. Called to follow together, called to serve together, called to live together. May it be so. Amen.