I had a little epiphany of sorts this week as the members of my clergy support group read this passage from 1 Samuel out loud in our Scripture study. There were 4 of us there, one retired already, 2 of us within months of retirement, and one serving a church very parttime in retire-ment. Instead of focussing on young Samuel, who kept being awakened in the night by the voice of God calling his name–the one we usually focus on–we found ourselves relating more to the old priest Eli. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” we are told, and Eli’s family has for too long been deep into self-serving and corruption. Eli has been powerless, or chosen to be powerless, to deal with his sons’ evil doings, and just before today’s reading, Eli can only accept the word of a messenger – “a man of God,” the text says– who warns him that his family is doomed.
Let me be clear that that is not why the four of us found ourselves relating more to Eli than to Samuel! It was instead that, even though the call wasn’t coming to him, Eli recognized God’s ways and could tell the young boy, “Go back to bed, my son. And when he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” We could remember our excitement and energy when we were first “called” into ministry–however undramatically or clearly our varied calls came to us–and we also recognized that we were in a different place now. Our calls are different now, though no less from God, and part of our calling now is to support and encourage others who are coming into the fullness of their calling from God. Sometimes we are called to be patrons of others’ gifts and callings. “Go back to bed, my son. And when he calls you, say, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” What would have happened to Samuel if Eli hadn’t told him that it was God calling the boy, not himself, an old priest needing to be served? It would have been a different story.
“God is still speaking,” we say in the United Church of Christ, but when God speaks, how do we recognize the Holy One’s voice amidst all the other voices that assault our ears and airwaves every day? Do we expect it to come in “plain speaking,” “telling it like it is,” delivered to us in blunt, even shocking, tones? Or might God’s voice require a little more from us to hear it, a little more effort on our part than flipping a switch or clicking on an icon? What if it takes practice to hear God’s voice, or intention, or simply openness? What if it takes silencing some of the other voices in our heads that we’ve heard from parents or bosses or politicians or ads or “the media”? And what if we’re not sure we even want to hear God’s voice, which, like in Eli’s case, bore the hard news that there were consequences to his actions or inactions? What if we’re convinced that the only thing God would have to say to us is condemnation or impossibility? Are we sure we want to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?”
What if God is speaking through voices that we’ve decided have nothing to say to us? The voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example? Or voices of those who long to come to the United States from places ravaged by war or poverty? Or voices of those we’ve labeled “illegal aliens” or those who are homeless or those who have failed to negotiate the systems we’ve set up or, just as likely, whom the systems have failed? Maybe God is speaking in those who hold different political views than we do. Maybe God is speaking in a new generation that doesn’t hold the same assumptions or have the same experiences that we do. If God is still speaking through those voices, are we listening?
God is still speaking, not only through the words or witness of others, but also within our own bodies and minds. UCC pastor and author Bruce Epperly reminds us that “God is constantly speaking in our lives through insights, encounters, hunches, dreams, bursts of energy, and inspirational thoughts.” [Holy Adventure, 1/14/18] In these days of “identity politics,” it is too easy to forget that God is able to communicate that way with everyone, no matter what label or category or “identity” we may have given them. We all–each one of us and “them”–are intimately known and loved by God, as Psalm 139 expresses. “O God, you have searched me and known me…It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” “We are not mass-produced but custom-made,” as James Limbaug writes [cited by Kate Matthews in sermonseeds, 1/14/18].
Psalm 139 is a creation psalm, only not about the creation of the heavens and the earth but of each one of us. Again, Bruce Epperly writes, “God’s creative presence in our lives is related to God’s awareness of our lives…God has moved through our lives at the cellular and spiritual levels from the moment of conception…To be known by God is to discover oneself as loved by God…[And so] God’s knowledge of us is not threatening, but enlightening and transforming.” [ibid.] One of the ways we can recognize God’s voice is that it is coming from a place of deep Love.
At every stage of our lives–as children discovering our place in the world, exploring the wonders of our bodies and nature and our growing abilities; as teen-agers, recognizing our individuality apart from parents, exploring the wonder of changing bodies, imagining what we’d like to do on our own; as young adults, coming into our own, trying on careers and identities; as parents nurturing and guiding children and teens, struggling with when to hold on and when to let go, while maintaining some sense of self; at the beginning of careers and at the end of them; as we age and our bodies and responsibilities change–at every stage of our lives, God is still speaking, and we would do well to pray daily, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Peter Gomes, the late (great) chaplain of Harvard University, wrote in his book about the Bible, The Good Book, that we spend much of our lives building an image of what we think we’re supposed to be, or maybe of what others think we’re supposed to be, trying to be “good enough.” It can be exhausting. “Well,” wrote Rev. Gomes, “there is good news, and that is why they call it the gospel.
The news is not that we are worse than we think; it is that we are better than we think and better than we deserve to be. Why? Because at the very bottom of the whole enterprise is the indisputable fact that we are created, made, formed, invented, patented in the image of goodness itself….People…cannot take away from you the fact that you are a child of God and bear the impression of God in your very soul. [cited in Matthews, op cit.]
God is not only still speaking, but still creating, both us and the world in which we live. We are still a work in progress. The kingdom of God, which Jesus spoke about, or the beloved community, which was Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase for the same thing, is already in our midst and still coming into being, requiring the gifts and wisdom and graces of people of every stage of life, from every walk of life, from every expression of loving, from every part of the planet. Remember people asked about Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” As it turns out, yes it could. And good can come from you, wherever you were born or grew up, and it can come from Africa and Haiti and everywhere God is present and at work–which is everywhere.
“Go back to bed, my son,” the old priest Eli told young Samuel, “and when he calls you say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Wise advice, as it turns out, that has stood the test of time. God is still speaking. May we too say, “Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.”
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark