The Call of God

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Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on 1st Samuel 3: 1 -10.  Focus on what God is calling us to do.  The role of prophet and priest in society.  Check out Rasaan Bourke & the Choir.

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” 1st Samuel tells us. Not all that different from our time. When was the last time our nation had a prophet speak to us? Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. comes to mind, but that was 50 years ago – history like our story concerning Samuel.

As our story begins, Samuel, a twelve-year-old temple assistant is “ministering to the Lord under Eli, the High Priest. Barbara Brown Taylor does a good job of describing what Samuel’s life was like in the temple. She writes:

“We can only guess what it was like for Samuel as the faithful brought their burnt-offerings, their sin-offerings, and their guilt-offerings to the temple. They were burdened people, most of them, hauling their stubborn animals up to the altar to be killed. Like a modern-day slaughter-house there was a great deal of blood, blood splashed on the altar and blood sprinkled on the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sanctuary.

The burning incense in the sanctuary did battle with the sickening sweet smell that blood gives off, but it didn’t stand a chance – the place smelled of death.

Maybe Samuel tended the cauldron where the sacrificial meat was boiled, or helped Eli locate the portion he was allowed to eat as the temple priest. Maybe Samuel was allowed to feed on some of the scraps himself, who knows?

“At night he lay down by the ark of God, the legendary throne of the invisible king Yahweh that Israel carried into battle at the head of her armies. It was reputed to contain all the sacred relics of the nation’s past: a container of manna, Aaron’s rod and staff, the tablets of the covenant. Sleeping next to it had to be like sleeping in a museum by yourself.”

Not, in other words, a day — or a boyhood — spent in the park. But a boyhood spent in close proximity to all that was considered sacred in his day. A boyhood spent in the very household of God.

Having grown up as a pastor’s son, always in and around the church, I can’t help but relate in a tiny way to this aspect of Samuel’s life. Always in and around the church, whether it was in my father’s or grandfather’s or uncle’s churches.

Over the years of his apprenticeship, Samuel would have enjoyed an insider’s view of religious life. The language of faith would have been his first language — the language he spoke most fluently. He would have handled holy objects, listened to whispered prayers, and witnessed moving conversions. Granted, he would also have seen the contradictions, the intrigues, the scandals too, but his circumstances would have primed him to know God.

Or so we’d like to assume. What the story reveals, however, is a surprise: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

The easy interpretation is to say that there’s a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Which is true. But I wonder if the writer of 1st Samuel is also saying something about the spiritual risk involved in becoming too insular, to churchy.” Something about the shadow side of human institutions — even the most well-meaning and well-run religious ones – Something about the necessary role of the outsider-as-prophet.

When I think about my own God-saturated upbringing, I am filled with gratitude. I’m so glad I had the privilege to grow up in the Church. To be shaped from earliest memory by its rituals and rhythms.

But Samuel’s story gives me pause, because it raises the possibility that my familiarity with the institution has made it harder for me to hear new and unexpected words from God and it raises the question for all of us, who love the church, are active in it, to wonder if it also can dull our ears to God’s call.

If so, I take comfort in the fact that God didn’t give up on Samuel. He called, called, and called again. He called until Samuel learned how to listen.

According to the religious hierarchies of the day, the people who should have heard God’s voice in this story were Eli and his sons. They were the authorities, the ultimate insiders by birth and by vocation. But they were not the ones God chose.

Instead, God chose Samuel. A child. A boy on the periphery, one who’s capacity for openness and wonder was still recoverable. A child who wasn’t bound by the political interests of his elders. A child who could tolerate an uncomfortable message — a message that would upend the very institution he knew best.

Strange, that God should choose an unexpected spokesman, an untested preacher with no prophetic credentials to his name. For young Samuel his place in history would not be his choice but would be his God-determined destiny.

This week as we celebrate the life and prophetic ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we see a very similar situation to Samuel’s. A young man, inexperienced in matters of public leadership, his theological diploma still wet with ink, and yet called upon to give direction to a march for freedom, the likes of which only Moses and Gandhi have ever known.

Sadly, the world no longer seeks moral guidance from the church; it appears the church itself needs guidance. The world has set aside the moral authority of the church because we who have been commissioned to speak have chosen to sleep.

What does it means when the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church dares to accuse the church of an “impotent silence,” suggesting that the church and its leaders suffer not only from a “lust for power” but from what he calls “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” which essentially means that the church has forgotten what it was here to do in the first place.

These are serious times – as serious as Montgomery or Selma. Someone’s got to awaken Samuel. It is good and right that we should celebrate the life and commitment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with a national holiday. But hopefully we are learning the inescapable lesson that the battle is not over. The struggle continues. The struggle for freedom and opportunity still continues today. It’s a never-ending and while monuments to honor our ancestors are good they are not good enough.

Who will speak to us in our time and place? Who is there who is prepared to fill Samuel’s or Dr. King’s shoes today? Who is God calling? What about you? What about me? Amen



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