Samuel was young. He was just a boy, and he did not have what you would think of as a 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 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 Eli 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, certainly not messiahs. Imagine somebody saying, “Come and see the long-awaited messiah, Bernie from Zearing,” 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.
We live in a world where the notion of hearing God’s voice sounds, well, a little crazy. The idea that God might speak to us, whether it is through a voice or a dream or a growing awareness or a deep conviction - however it happens, the idea that God might speak to us is for many people a little bit suspect. And the ability to hear God’s call, to perceive that God is speaking to us, can be just as hard for us as it was for Samuel.
Frederick Buechner is a great preacher and writer, author of many books, both fiction and non-fiction. One of the clearest messages woven into his many books is to pay attention - to your life, to the people with whom you are closest, to the things that happen to you. This, he says, is the best and most authentic, way to experience yourself and God.
You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
God can speak to us in many ways, and as Frederick Buechner says, it happens as we listen to our lives. But listening can be very hard, as we all know. It was hard for Samuel and Eli, and we could all use some help.
A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC on a cold January morning and started to play the violin. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first tip: a woman threw a dollar in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No applause; no recognition.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. He wanted to stop but his mother tugged him along. So the child turned his head and looked backward at the musician as he walked.
No one knew that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played very intricate pieces on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where patrons paid $100 a seat and up.
This whole episode was a social experiment organized by the Washington Post that explored perception, taste and priorities of people. The questions were: in a commonplace environment at an unexpected hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize brilliance in an unexpected context?
One of the questions this experiment might raise for us is, “If we don’t have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing beautiful, powerful music, then what else are we missing?”
What if God is speaking to us, is all around us, is like a musician playing beautiful, inspiring notes, but we are too busy or too cynical or too disinterested to notice?
Samuel at least heard the voice calling his name. He didn’t have it figured out, didn’t know who was speaking to him, but he was at least listening, and with Eli’s help he made sense of it. I wonder about us? With all of the busyness of our lives, are we able to perceive the call of God?
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. But what they 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 argue with Nathaniel, 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 - 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. 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.
This weekend we are remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a great civil rights leader and social activist. But at the heart of it, Martin Luther King was a pastor. We take pride in the fact that he was an American Baptist pastor, part of our denomination.
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 [humanity]. 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.King also said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
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. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
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.”
When we look at our world today, how much do we need this kind of vision of a Beloved Community?
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 others, to bring even enemies, into the Beloved Community.
We are called together. Called to follow together, called to serve together, called to live together. We need one another to hear God’s call, and we need one another to live as a Beloved Community. May it be so. Amen.