Who’s calling?

Guest Preacher: Rev. Kara Jones, Intertwine Youth Ministry Collective Pastor

1 Samuel 3:1-15

I am an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. My full-time ministry appointment is made up of 3 part-time jobs; a bit unusual, but it works beautifully overall. My connection with Zion UCC is as Youth Pastor for Intertwine Youth Ministry Collective, a youth ministry endeavor shared between Zion, First Presbyterian, and William Street United Methodist. In addition, I serve as Community Minister and Manager at Common Ground Free Store Ministries and as a private music instructor with Delaware Music Academy.

Needless to say, between the 3 positions and 3 churches, a lot of people in Delaware know me! However, with my apologies, I confess that don’t always remember who I’ve met or where I know them from…let alone their names! I interact directly with literally over a thousand different people every year! I keep joking that I need to have a T-shirt made that says, “I’m in community ministry; please remind me how I know you.”

It is not uncommon when I’m out and about in the community for someone to greet me by name, and my brain will take off at a million miles a minute before I can place how I know them.

And then there are the days that someone greets me by my full name and title, Rev. Kara Jones, somewhere in the community, and I panic because they don’t look familiar to me at all. And then I realize I forgot to take my Common Ground Free Store name tag off before entering the grocery store! They may not know me at all! They’re just reading my name tag!

Names are important in our society because names are how we are known. A child came home from school one day and told her parents that it’s a good thing they named her what they did. When they asked why, she said, “because that’s what everyone calls me!”

In addition to being known by our names, in our society we are celebrated by our names. We take the same Happy Birthday song and insert someone’s name into it. It’s immediately a celebration for THAT person.

Our names are also used to call our attention to something. When one of my nephews says, “Hey Aunt Kara, look at this!”, you’d better believe I’m going to look!

Our names can also be used to call us to action. Remember when a parent used your full name? Uh oh! We’re in trouble and better get a move on!

Something that is important to remember is that WHO calls us MATTERS! WHO says our name MATTERS! I’ll respond differently to a stranger at the grocery store saying my name (while reading my forgot-to-take-it-off name tag) than I do when my parents say my name.

In our Scripture today from 1 Samuel 3, we’ll hear a story of what happens when God calls someone by name. Before we read the passage, a few details will help to set the stage. Eli, one of the main characters in our story, was one of the priests of the temple, as were his sons. Eli was trying to remain faithful to God. His sons? Not so much! In the previous chapter, we can read about all the ways that his sons were abusing their power as priests and not serving God faithfully. God had told Eli that God would have to punish them if things didn’t change. Eli tried to call them out on their behaviors, but his sons refused to budge.

Samuel, another main character, was one of those miracle babies we read about throughout scripture. His mother Hannah had been unable to have children and prayed for a son that she would commit to the temple. She gave birth and named him Samuel, meaning “he who is from God.” Once weaned, she gave him over to service at the temple, seeing him only once a year where he was, in essence, being raised by Eli, the priest. At the time of our story, Samuel is probably an early teenager.

Here is something important to note: in the time the Bible was written, people didn’t use their first names in casual company the way we do today. Generally, people were known by titles or relationships, such as “the son of so-and-so.” Now, within this church’s predominantly white, suburban culture, we tend to use first names fairly early on in our relationships. When I introduce myself, I don’t usually say, “I’m Rev. Jones.” I say, “I’m Kara.” But this was not common practice in Bible times. First names were reserved for close connections because there was an intimacy to knowing and using someone’s name.

So now, keeping in mind how and when first names were used, let’s look at 1 Samuel 3, beginning with verses 1-6: “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. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 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. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But Eli said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So Samuel went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But Eli said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’”

Right at the beginning of the chapter, we hear, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Often, we immediately assume that God wasn’t speaking as often or as clearly as perhaps in earlier stories in our Old Testament. I wonder why we assume that this rarity was God’s doing. We’re really good at shifting any blame away from ourselves, aren’t we? What if we own the fact that we might not be listening? So, perhaps at this point in our story, rather than assume that God hasn’t been speaking, we should begin with the assumption that the people were out of practice in hearing or experiencing God’s voice.

This sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? Perhaps we are not in the practice or the habit of expecting to hear God’s voice. Perhaps it’s because we have never heard God’s voice, whether audibly or otherwise, and don’t know what to listen for. Perhaps it’s because we are simply out of practice when it comes to listening for God. Perhaps it’s because we don’t WANT to hear what God might say! Perhaps it’s because we get bombarded with messages all the time, and it’s really hard to sort out what needs our attention most at any given time. I heard a podcast this past week that said that we are all becoming experts at practicing “selective listening.”

Returning to our scripture, even Eli, the priest, was out of practice listening for God. Each time Samuel came running to him after hearing God call his name, Eli sent him back to bed, saying, “I didn’t call you. Go back to bed!” I imagine this to be like a parent annoyed that their kid keeps waking them up in the night! “Ugh, kid! Go back to bed and stay there!”

It wasn’t until the THIRD time that God called Samuel that Eli realized what was going on. Let’s return to the text, continuing at verse 7: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” (Ah! Here, we learn why Samuel didn’t recognize God’s voice!) “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 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.” (Light bulb!) “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. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”

In the verses that follow, we discover that what Samuel heard from God was hard to take in! To summarize: God told him that the time had come to punish Eli, Samuel’s mentor, and Eli’s sons for their sins against God and against the temple. Eli already knew this punishment was coming because God had already told him directly; what Samuel heard from God was confirmation and that the time had come for this punishment to be enacted.

How nice it would have been for Samuel, the first time God speaks directly to him, to hear, “hey Sammy, you’re a great guy, and I love you lots!” rather than “yeah, here’s the thing: your mentor and his family have pushed me to the limits, and now I’m going to keep my word and punish them.”

Regardless of the difficulty of the message, remember that God called to Samuel BY NAME. God KNOWS Samuel even if Samuel did not yet know God. God uses Samuel’s name, showing God’s close connection with Samuel, to draw his attention to something and to prompt him to action.

Now, note what Samuel did and didn’t do next. He didn’t hide out and avoid thinking about what he heard. He didn’t decide that it was a weird dream caused by too much late-night chocolate. He didn’t run away in a panic about Eli finding out. Verse 15 says, “Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord.” Samuel pondered the words that God spoke to him all night. And in the morning, he got up and opened the doors. He took the next steps in becoming who God was calling him to be: a prophet.

The United Church of Christ has a tagline: “God is still speaking” with the symbol of a comma, indicating that God isn’t done interacting with us in our world. What is powerful is that God knows US by name, God celebrates US, God uses OUR names to draw our attention to something, and God calls US to action! We may not hear God audibly. We may be out of practice. Or like Samuel, we may not yet know God.

This is where the beauty of community comes in because community can help us clarify what we are hearing. Samuel didn’t know who was calling him or what he was hearing. But his community, primarily made up of Eli, helped him discern and identify. It was Eli who realized that God was calling to Samuel. It took him 3 tries to realize it!

But he finally did! And when he did, he offered wise guidance to Samuel. Samuel took his advice, and then God revealed God’s self to Samuel.

I heard a Presbyterian minister this past week who said that when he thinks he is experiencing God’s call, he checks his reality with his community. So, regardless of how flawed or broken our community may be (kind of like Eli!), our community can still help us attune our ears and hearts to recognize God’s voice. And regardless of how flawed or broken we may feel we ourselves are, we can help others recognize God’s voice calling them as well. One of many reasons why we are each vital to our community!

A Lutheran pastor, in a sermon given on this very passage earlier this year, said, “The story of Samuel is a wake-up call for us – like Samuel – to realize that the Lord is calling our name. The story of Samuel is an invitation for us to remember and to recognize what it means to be summoned into God’s presence; to know the prompting of divine voice, and…to listen intently for directions for [God’s] work for us in the world.”

Our first challenge is simply clearing our minds, our hearts, and our ears enough to hear God’s voice. God IS still speaking. Once we position ourselves to expect to hear God and make space in our lives to listen, God will speak. God will call our names. Even if we miss God’s call the first time…or the second time…or the third time…God will keep calling.

Our next challenge, once we hear God’s voice, is to “get up and open the doors,” to take the next steps. What we hear may be hard! What we hear may be counter-cultural or go against the popular grain or take us way out of our comfort zones. When we choose to act on what we hear, we may get pushback again and again.

What does it look like in your life to listen to God’s call?

Zion knows Micah 6:8 well: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” God’s call to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly can look different for each one of us. It might mean attending a rally or protest or march. It might mean quietly picking up a book about racism and facing our own preconceived notions. It could mean leading the way in writing anti-hate legislation. It could mean speaking up for someone when others are speaking down to them. Perhaps it’s working to be gracious in our relationships rather than blaming; or being open to God’s direction instead of following our own egos and desires. Maybe it’s simply hearing God’s voice asking us to care for the littlest ones in our church or the forgotten ones in our city.

Perhaps God’s call is challenging you to advocate for another. We have family friends whose oldest came out as transgender. For a Catholic family, that was quite a shaking of faith for them! But, rather than protesting, ignoring, or avoiding, the mother began researching and learning. She listened to her son. She advocated with doctors and colleges to be sure that his needs would be cared for. It was not a direction she expected to go as a mother, but it was the direction that God called her to so that her son could authentically be himself.

Perhaps God’s call involves taking on a huge project to bless others. The clergy stole I am wearing today was a surprise gift from another United Methodist clergywoman. Last fall, she felt God calling her to support other clergywoman in our conference by offering us a gift of encouragement in the midst of the exhaustion of the pandemic. She got the list of all 164 clergywoman in our conference and started sewing stoles with matching masks. She quietly dropped them in the mail where they surprised us on our doorsteps. Once she completed that list, she moved on to gifting stoles and masks for the clergywoman in the conference that covers the other half of Ohio as well. All this in addition to the 1,000 masks she’d already made and donated! One of my colleagues stated that her stole is a “beautiful reminder of the beloved community that we share, a source of encouragement, and a reminder of our connection. And in a socially distant time, those things…are profoundly meaningful.”

What if God calls your name? What if God calls YOU? Listen.
God is still speaking.
How will we respond?

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.

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