Stories of call are not uncommon throughout the Bible. And almost anyone who was anyone in ancient times had his or her story of call relayed in the scriptures, it was the “Who’s Who” of the Jewish world. There are stories of spontaneous calls, like the fishermen who simply dropped their nets and followed a then unknown teacher on the shores of Galilee. There are the dramatic calls, like Saul (who became Paul) who saw something like scales fall from his eyes. There are the calls to the inadequate, like Moses who had problems speaking at first. There are the calls of the elderly, like Sarah who was told late in her life that she would bear a child. There are the calls of the very young, like the unwed and pregnant Mary, called to birth the Messiah when she was barely into adolescence. There are calls of the incredulous and resistant, like Jonah who ran from God.
Hearing a sermon on discerning the call of God is as common as sliced white bread these days. They are throughout the lectionary, regularly tackled in pulpits throughout Christendom. And yet, if you ever ask a young pastor or eager seminarian the story of their call, more often than not they will wax poetic, eyes glazed in misty wonder as they retell the story of their own call, a love story of sorts.
But the story of Samuel’s call, the story we read about this morning is not the standard take on the story. For the calling of the young Samuel would never have occurred were it not for the wisdom and discernment of another. No, the hero in this tale is actually not the one that the book is named after but his mentor, the common priest, Eli.
In those days there were just two of them, the apprentice and the old priest. One was a mere boy, twelve or so, a novitiate of sorts, eager to learn the art and practice of the Jewish faith, eager to gain insight into the heart of priestly wisdom. He was young. He was inexperienced. He was only a boy who had been committed and dedicated to God at his birth by his mother Hannah. A mother who had prayed desperately for a child, and who, upon finally conceiving, promised to repay God in the only way she knew how. Samuel was farmed out to live in the temple early on, and he only saw his family once a year, when they came to offer sacrifice to God there. And so, his near constant companion was another parental figure, the avuncular Eli with whom he lived in companionable quiet.
Now Eli had his own story, as most teachers do. At this point in his life he was wizened and weary, a man who had seen his share of heartache and pain. His eyesight, and perhaps even his vision of the future, had grown dim, like a lamp that fades when the oil is low. He was the father of sons who mocked his religion. Sons who slept with temple prostitutes and flaunted their disdain for his God. Sons who rejected their birthright as future priests in the church, and who must have disappointed their father by scoffing at their lineage. We can only imagine Eli’s sense of hopelessness as he wondered what his legacy would be in a world that valued patriarchy, and sons carrying on the name and role as their fathers. On Eli’s watch the word of God had grown increasingly rare, and visions were no longer appearing as they had in years past.
And so here we have them, the inexperienced and the burned out. Samuel and Eli. Two of God’s more unlikely servants, living in the chamber of the temple, sharing their days together, allowing time to unfold before them, devoting their lives to the service of the God who had not offered direction, or vision, or leading, or wisdom for many years. There had been only silence to these faithful.
And then one night, no different than any other night, after the evening meal had been shared and the prayers had been said the old man and the young boy each made their way to their separate sleeping quarters for bed. I love to imagine the scene that comes next, and I have played it over in my head so many times that it almost seems like a movie. It is almost comic in its urgency, filled with surprises and suspense, as we the audience wait for the truth to dawn. As we wait for Samuel and Eli to understand the cosmic importance of this night. The dynamic duo are about to be stunned out of their quiet complacency with a call that will set both their ears tingling.
The twelve-year-old woke in the dim first-light of early morning and heard his name called twice, summoned at this odd hour. Can’t you just see him stumbling from his bed into the priest Eli’s room, sleep still in his eyes, his hair disheveled with a classic case of bedhead? Out of breath, with his heart pounding with that sense of surprise that one gets when the phone rings in the middle of the night, he asked, “What is it? I’m right here.” But Eli, was not the one who called. And the old man must have wondered what it was that roused the boy, what sent him on his errand into the priest’s room at night for he had not. And so the boy clip-clopped back down the hallway to his own room, back to the comfort of sleep. And no sooner had he started to drift off when he heard his name spoken again with the same urgency, the same breathless expectation. And for the second time that night, Samuel raced down to the old priest’s room, eager to do his master’s bidding (or maybe grumbling under his breath that the old man had lost his mind). But again, it was not Eli who called. And as listeners to the story, we want to burst in and give Samuel a hint now…but we can’t, not across time and distance. In exasperation and confusion the boy made his way back to his own room for the second time that night.
Eli, for his part, doesn’t seem to have picked up on the earliest clues that Samuel was having a “God moment.” For the first visit could have been a simple misunderstanding, and the second a nuisance as the boy roused him from sleep, but by the third consecutive trip that night the old priest must have picked up on something. Eli must have known that the young Samuel was being called by something or rather someone more powerful than he was. Eli was wise enough to sense that something holy was afoot. In those days when the word of God was rare and vision not widespread this saint of a man, mentor to Eli, discerned that there was more and had a sense that this was the real thing. And it was then that Eli offered the boy prophesy, “Samuel, go lie down. If God calls again, tell him your listening.”
The story goes on, of course, and if I’ve whetted your appetite for more of the Samuel saga you can mosey on over to 1 Samuel 4 for a complete run down, but for now I want to wrap up the story in this place. I want to pause and linger here, for there are important things for us to learn in these verses. Samuel’s call by the still speaking God and Eli’s wisdom in the face of this call offer us a summons that we have to hear in our day. In another time when one might say that the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread.
The story of Eli’s wisdom with Samuel isn’t about an elder dictating to a youngster. It isn’t about Eli pressing his own frustrated dreams onto his protégé. It isn’t about Eli defining the parameters of what Samuel is to do. Instead, Eli simply counsels Samuel to listen for himself. Eli points Samuel to the still speaking God, and urges him to seek his own path. And isn’t this the mark of a good teacher? Eli says simply this, “I think you may be hearing the voice of God. I suggest you stop and listen.”
Good teaching is that which allows students to discern the truth for themselves. Good teaching is about believing in the potential of the student to lead. Good teaching is in offering wisdom without making demands. Good teaching is in knowing that gentle suggestion can be as powerful as rigid dogmatism. Good teaching encourages students to listen, and then listen some more. All of this Eli teaches, and because of this teaching, a leader is born.
But of course that is not the end, but merely the beginning. For the cycle of wisdom carries on to the next generation, and the one after that. And soon even more ears are tingling as the future of the still speaking God is unfurled in the world.
This morning as we celebrate our educators, as we bask in the collective wisdom they offer, as we begin our own educational year here at Peace UCC may we pledge ourselves to listening in our own lives for the still speaking God. May we listen in the quiet spaces where the sacred lurks, and may we listen in the noisy exclamations as others tell their story. May we listen to our children those who babble and those who bark. May we listen to our youth those who dream and those who ponder. May we listen to our grandparents those who reflect and those who advise. And together may we listen to the call of God as a church, as well those individual divine nudges that keep us awake at night. For the still speaking God is dreaming big dreams for us, and the world is ready. Do you feel your ears tingle? It’s time.