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 he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he 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 he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now 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. 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.”
The Word of God for the People of God.
Thanks be to God.
There’s something a little weird about the way we use the word, ‘call’ in the church. Take, for example, dear Heather Ferguson, our Director of Christian Education. In one sense, she is leaving this job for another job. But ‘call’, this is the word we use, is different. We believe that God called Heather to us, to serve here for a particular season. That time is a gift. Now she has been called to finish up her service here to do a similar job, at a great church in a beautiful place that is also significantly closer to her mother, and closer still to her brother. It’s about a job but it’s about all of it, the way God shapes and moves and nudges us throughout our lives.
Because in one sense, everything we do in our lives flows out of answering that first CALL, to listen for God, to follow Jesus. Once you say YES, once you lean in, even if the responding to that call is filled, like mine is, with lots of questions and no small amount of confusion somethings – everything else is the working out of that first call, first YES. The bible is full of call stories like today’s – they all have a similar structure. God calls to Abram, to the early matriarchs and patriarchs, to Moses and Aaron, to the judges and the prophets, to Jesus and the disciples, to the leaders of the early church. Today’s text is a big deal. The book of I Samuel begins with Hannah and Elkanah, a couple who cannot have children. Hannah prays at the temple, and Eli the priest notices her anguish. He offers a blessing, Hannah soon conceives, and, in gratitude to God, promises this child to God’s service in the temple with those same priests.
It is important to note that this text is not about how one gets pregnant properly. It is most certainly NOT an indication of God’s blessing or judgment upon those wrestling with infertility. No, no. What this text is trying to do is to say that from the very beginning God was at work in Samuel’s life. Samuel would grow up in the temple and become a great prophet who would anoint Israel’s first king, Saul. Samuel would later tell Saul that he had disappointed God and would no longer reign. Then, most importantly, Samuel was the prophet who later gathered all of Jesse’s 12 sons, and anointed the youngest one, David, to be the great king for the nation. All of these things sliding into place from the very beginning are further evidence of the unfolding of God’s purposes, God’s providential action in the life of God’s people.
Samuel is in the temple – Josephus writes that he was twelve when this episode occurs – so you 6th graders, listen up! The word of the Lord, the text says, was rare in those days. One scholar writes: “This story is in some sense our story—direct theophanies are… well, let’s say they’re rare these days. “So the story is placed in our time; with this verse, we have passed the age of miracles. After this there are no pillars of fire, no columns of smoke, no parting of seas or rivers; most of what follows is a worldly history of successes, defeats, and palace intrigue.” Most of this text is full of confusion. God calls Samuel by name. Samuel assumes its Eli, and rushes in. The priest, the guy whose job it was to know, didn’t understand either. Samuel came and woke Eli up once….then twice…then only AFTER the third time, he got it. Wait a minute, Eli says. This is God. If it happens again you’ll know. This is God. Samuel says those amazing words, given to him by Eli, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Your servant is listening.
As summer begins and the rhythm shifts, it’s the perfect time to reflect a little on call. When in your life have you felt called to do something? How did you know? Most of the time in my life it’s been because someone else, part of the community, helped me discern that call. Eli’s role in this text points to something crucial. We can’t figure out call on our own. Friends, or strangers, ask questions, sometimes we invite people on a trip or to a retreat or a class. Good discernment happens with others. Good discernment takes time – it took the wise priest Eli 3 times before he figured out what was happening. Good discernment, and it can be so slow, cannot be rushed. Also from the text, and I think this is important, good discernment continues in openness. Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. What would you have me do, God? I’m open. Help me hear. Help me hear. We must approach all discernment with patience and humility.
I was going to frame this summer for you, whatever you’ll be doing, as a time to step back, take stock, do a little sorting out. Sometimes I think of discernment in a little too pragmatic a way, like cleaning out a closet. What stuff do I want to keep doing? What stuff do I need to stop doing? But that ends up being a little too pragmatic, and, if I’m being honest, too selfish. It’s too much about what I want to do with my time. What my priorities are. A friend in my preaching group nudged me towards a reflection by Parker Palmer on the website of “On Being.” Parker writes that he first needed to learn to ask a better question: “I’m no longer asking, ‘What do I want to let go of and what do I want to hang onto?’ Instead I’m asking, ‘What do I want to let go of and what do I want to give myself to?’”
I love the question and I am terrified of it as well. What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to? When Samuel, at Eli’s urging, offered himself to God, I suspect he already knew that his life would be transformed. The same is true for us. What do we need to set aside? I’m not talking about committees you’re tired of being on. I’m talking about grudges. Anger. Frustration with a family member or group or system. Stereotypes we hold of people who look differently or speak differently or folks with whom we disagree on all sorts of things.
And what will you give yourself to? Maybe that’s your question as you approach the table here in a few minutes. To Jesus, yes, but what part of Christ’s own work claims you? Feeding the poor? Advocating for justice? Praying with passion. Tending to those who are left out or lonely, even in our community. Building bridges? I love being together with our brothers and sister from La Nueva Jerusalen – we are family! Not being satisfied with broken relationships. Speaking up for others who really need someone to speak up for them?
Then Palmer quotes Mary Oliver:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
All praise be to God. Amen.
 From The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s paper at The Well, Richmond, 2017.
 Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 8910-8912). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition, also from Dana.