Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
January 18, 2015
1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
Illustration by Rachel Ternes
1 Samuel 3:1–10 • Now the boy Samuel was serving the LORD under Eli. The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the LORD’s temple, where God’s chest was.
The LORD called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said. Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.
Again the LORD called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.” (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.) A third time the LORD called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” Then Eli realized that it was the LORD who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.
Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
John 1:43–51 • The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.” Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?” Philip said, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”
Years ago, my uncle gave me the secret for avoiding any kind of unpleasant duty in the army: never make eye contact with your commanding officer and when they were looking for volunteers, develop an itch right over your name tag.
See, it’s easy to avoid responsibility when you’re not called by name. “I need a volunteer” is a lot different from “Schaefer, I need you to do something.” One allows us to imagine that we are not the one needed to respond to whatever crisis or need has arisen.
It’s a well-known psychological phenomenon called “diffusion of responsibility.” When the appeal is generic and not directed toward anyone in particular, the individual hearer is inclined not to respond. We see that happen all the time in worship and in the UMSA meetings. Especially when Monica asks if someone would like to close the meeting in prayer.
But it’s interesting to note that it’s not just when we’re being asked to do something that we would rather not. This diffusion of responsibility sets in even when the thing we are called to do is good and important. In a famous case in the 1960’s involved a young woman named Kitty Genovese who was raped and murdered in the courtyard outside her apartment building. Reports later indicated that dozens of people had heard her cries for help and even heard as her attacker returned to finish the job. And not a single person called the police or helped. The nation was horrified and looked for all kinds of explanations based in desensitization to violence or in the impersonal nature of urban life. But the real explanation emerged later: the diffusion of responsibility in a crowd. The assumption that you don’t have to respond; someone else will. And so, they say that had there only been one witness to the crime instead of 40, Kitty Genovese might still be alive. They tell you that if you are ever in trouble, single someone out: “You in the red shirt—help me!”
It’s easy for us to avoid responsibility when we’re in a crowd. But when we’re singled out we respond. Especially when we’re called by name.
II. THE TEXT
In tonight’s lesson from 1 Samuel, we read the story of the calling of Samuel. Samuel has been in the service of the priest Eli serving in the Lord’s sanctuary. Samuel is lying down in the sanctuary where the ark of the covenant is when he hears his name. Not being familiar with divine visions and encounters (for we are told they were rare in those days), he assumes that Eli is calling him. When he runs to Eli, Eli says, “I didn’t call you. Go back to sleep.” This happens two more times and on the third time, Eli realizes that it was God calling to Samuel, so he says, “The next time he calls you, say ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
And thus begins one of the great prophetic careers in the Hebrew Bible. Samuel will go on to be a judge of Israel and its leader before anointing the first two kings of Israel, Saul and the great king and founder of a dynasty: David. And all because he responded when God called his name.
Now, it is worth noting that most prophets resist the call to be a prophet. Moses claims that he is not a good speaker. Isaiah claims that he is a man of unclean lips. Jeremiah claims that he is just a boy and too young. Most of the prophets respond to the call in this way initially. God perseveres in the calling and the prophet usually relents.
III. THE CALLING
But it’s fair to say that this is the result when the calling is clear. In the 1 Samuel text, we are told that “the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’” That’s a pretty clear indication that God is trying to get your attention.
Likewise, when Jesus is walking into Galilee and walks by you and says, “Follow me,” the opportunity to respond or not is pretty clear. There’s not a lot of ambiguity. Well, I think Jesus wants me to be a disciple, but I’m not really sure. It doesn’t get much clearer than that: “Follow me.”
Now, if even the prophets resisted the calling when it was clear, how much harder is it to respond when the calling is not? That is, what happens if the calling is not manifested as obviously as Jesus walking along the lakeshore calling your name? Or the Lord standing in front of you calling your name in the middle of the night?
To be honest, those events seem like the minority of occurrences for being called to God’s work. For the bulk of them, it seems a lot more mysterious than that. The phrase “the word of the Lord came to” so-and-so appears frequently in the Biblical text—110 times by my count. But the interesting thing is that this does not necessarily suggest speech. The Hebrew phrase is always va-y’hi d’var Adonai el- which can be translated as “And the word of the Lord happened to” so-and-so. The word happened? What does that mean? What does that even look like?
I’m not sure, but I think it suggests that the calling of God is not something that necessarily comes with some obvious kind of theophany; God does not need to show up in person calling your name in order to call you to the work of God. The trick is in discerning the word.
Even if we’re reluctant to, chances are that we will respond when God calls us by name. But how do we know that that’s happened? How do we know when it is that we’ve been summoned to some divine purpose, some holy task?
This is where Eli’s advice and Samuel’s statement are most instructive: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The key is in the listening. And being open to listening to the surprising ways that God’s word might come to us.
IV. THE LISTENING SERVANT
Martin Luther King had been a preacher for years. Ordained at 19 and a graduate of Boston University School of Divinity, he’d been in the ministry for a while already. But his calling toward the prophetic ministry that would define his life and the life of our nation came in a surprising way.
A story is told of an event in his life that has come to be known as his “Kitchen Table Conversion.”
King came home after this mass meeting, exhausted, afraid, and he went to bed. All of a sudden the phone rang. “N-gg-r! If you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re gonna blow your brains out and blow up your house too.”
He didn’t go back to bed. He walked the floor. He began to feel and finally got ready to say that he couldn’t take it anymore. A violent image it is to be at the end of one’s rope, isn’t it? Strange fruit? I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take it anymore. And he walked, he turned, and went into the kitchen. And in the kitchen he put on a pot of strong black coffee and it began to percolate. Yes, he decided, and he was now ready to say, I quit. There was no other choice for him: husband, father, pastor. How can I quit? he said. I’ve got to quit. How can I do that and not appear a coward? How can I do that and not hurt the boycott? How can I do that and turn over the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association? He felt more alone than he had ever felt on any day in his life, just twenty-four hours after the community of loving people that had surrounded him had gotten him out of jail.
Then he heard something in the room. The coffee is finished perking. He’s had a cup. He hears a voice. You can’t call on your daddy now, he’s 175 miles away up in Atlanta. You can’t even call on your momma now. And that’s alone. That’s a feeling you get all alone.
He put his hands on his head, and he bowed over the table. Oh Lord! he prayed aloud there alone in the kitchen, sitting at the table where his family had shared meals and love, the welcome table in that home. Oh Lord! he prayed out loud. I’m down here trying to do what’s right, but Lord I must confess I’m weak now. I am afraid. Oh Lord, the people are looking to me for leadership and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter! Lord, I am at the end of my powers! I have nothing left. I cannot face it alone. He sat at the table. He bowed his head in his hands and he wept. Burning tears fell from Dr. Martin Luther King’s eyes.
But then he felt something else. It was a stirring presence as he wept with his head bowed. It seemed to him that an inner voice was speaking with quiet assurance. Blessed assurance. Martin Luther King, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth and love. I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.
Early on in the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. could have made the decision to leave it all. To quit. To leave behind the movement. But in the middle of the night, over a cup of coffee, it seems to him as if he’s hearing a voice—an inner voice speaking with quiet assurance: “Martin Luther King, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth and love. I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.”
Sometimes the word of God comes to us in a direct calling from the heavens or from the Son of God as he walks along the dusty byways of ancient Galilee. And sometimes the word of God just happens to us.
Martin Luther King had the word of God happen to him late one night after a racist phone call and a cup of coffee. God spoke to him because there in the middle of the night, he was listening.
Several years ago, when I was going through a difficult discernment about vocation, Joe pointed me toward the words of the Rev. Frederick Buechner:
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self-interest…. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
That proved to be a profoundly insightful quote for me and has framed a lot of how I have come to understand the calling of God.
For sometimes the word and calling of God come to us not in profound theophanies but in the obvious needs of our world and in the intersection of those needs with the passion that drives us. Sometimes we get so lost in listening for something profound that we miss the way that God is speaking to us already.
I am always surprised at how often my conversations with students will be about calling and this sense that they should respond to what they should be doing with their lives. Usually I will ask them what they want to do with their lives and when they tell me, I’ll ask why it hasn’t occurred to them that that passion, that desire to do a particular thing, isn’t interpreted as a calling? Why is it so hard to imagine that the strong feeling you have in your heart toward some kind of action has been placed there by God? Are we so conditioned to think of a calling as unpleasant that we cannot imagine it involving at all the “deep gladness” that Buechner talks about?
That deep gladness doesn’t mean a calling will be easy, but it means that there is something upon our hearts that almost drives us to the work. That is the inner voice, the voice summoning us to be our truest selves. The voice that comes to us in the middle of the night and calls our name, even when we don’t recognize the source.
There is great need in the world. No less so today than it was in Martin Luther King’s day. There is still so much work to be done for justice. So much work to be done for righteousness. So much to be done for love and truth. We can stand around waiting for the skies to open up and summon us to the work of the kingdom. Or we can listen. Listen to the voices of the needy. Listen to the voices of the oppressed. Listen to the voices of the ones we love and trust. Listen to the stillnesses. Listen to murmurings of our own hearts. Listen to the inner voice, speaking to the deep gladness that intersects with the world’s deep need. Listen to the word of God as it happens in our lives.
Martin Luther King did that late one night at his kitchen table. And having listened to the voice of God, he went on to change the world. If we would join in the work of the transformation of the world, then we, too, are called to listen to the word of God as it happens in our lives. It may come to us through reflection on the scriptures. It may come to us through the liturgy and hymns of the church. It may come to us through the voices of community. It may come to us through the deep passions of our hearts. It may come to us in the middle of a night full of fear and dread. It may come to us the quietness of a still moment. However it comes, however it happens to us, our response would do well to follow Eli’s advice and Samuel’s example and to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”