(a sermon for January 17, 2021, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Samuel 3:1-20)
The story goes that two men were at the local diner one day, talking over a cup of coffee. And the first man says, “You know, I’m concerned about my wife. She’s talking to herself a lot these days.” And the second man thought about this for a moment, and replies, “Ayuh, my wife does that too, but she doesn’t know it. She thinks I’m listening!”
LISTENING, it can be said, is one of the most important tools for a marriage or any relationship, and conversely, the lack of listening can be its greatest detriment. As a pastor, I can tell you that I talk to people all the time – couples, parents and children, family members and friends – for whom this holds very true. And as a husband and father, I can vouch for the fact that the vast majority of any conflict in our home can be traced back to a lapse in listening skills (and I will leave to your imaginations as to who that involves!). Listening, you see, does not always come naturally to us, nor does it come easily; in fact, our dilemma is wonderfully expressed by the title character in Marjorie Kellogg’s book (and subsequent 1970’s era movie), “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.” In that book, she declares to one of her closest friends, Arthur, “The trouble with you, Arthur, is that you seldom listen to me, and when you do you don’t hear, and when you do hear, you hear wrong, and even when you hear right you change it so fast that it’s never the same.”
So does that sound at all familiar? I’m guessing it probably does, because the sad truth is that this is precisely how a lot of us listen to each other; but what’s even worse, especially for us who are people of faith, is that this is also how a great many of us listen to God!
I’ll say it again: listening is one of the most important tools for any relationship, and the lack of listening can be its greatest detriment; and this is especially true as regards our relationship with God. Let me put this another way: if God calls our name, how will we know unless we’re listening? How will we know what God is saying to us or where God might be leading? For that matter, how will we recognize that it’s actually us that God is talking to; or even if what we’re hearing is God at all, as opposed to, say, some other overpowering voice in this world that demands our attention? How will we know any of this… unless we’re truly listening?
One thing is clear: listening – and this applies whether we’re talking about our relationships with one another or our relationship with God – involves more than merely hearing; listening, in truth, is all encompassing. It’s no accident that in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word for listen is also the word for obey, which means that to listen to God is to open one’s whole life and self to God; and to attend wholly to that to which God is calling.
We see this very clearly in our scripture reading for this morning, the story of God’s call to Samuel; who was to become, as a judge and a prophet, one of Israel’s great leaders. But at the point we pick up the story today Samuel is still just a 12-year-old boy; who’s been sent by his mother Hannah to live in the temple as a servant of God under the authority of an old and blind priest by the name of Eli. Right from the outset, we’re told that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days,” and that “visions were not widespread;” but what’s also true about those days is that Israel’s leadership at the time was particular corrupt in nature. For Israel, this was an era of moral ambiguity and societal degradation that happened from the top down; not unlike our own time, really, when a voice of true faith can easily be drowned out in the sheer cacophony of all the world’s noise. So yes, you can kind of understand how under such circumstances one might miss God’s call; after all, when there’s a hundred different voices clamoring for your attention, it’s hard to discern the one voice you’re supposed to be listening for!
Actually, Samuel did hear that one voice; it’s just that he mistakenly assumed it was Eli calling his name. This happened three times; and each time Samuel arose from his bed to go to Eli, assuming that the old man was in need of something. Samuel had no idea at all that it this was the voice of God calling him; it was, in fact, old Eli who finally began to realize that it was the Lord calling the boy. “Go back and lie down,” Eli says to Samuel, and “if the voice calls again, say, ‘Speak, God, I’m your servant, ready to listen.”
And sure enough; it’s when Samuel understands that it’s God who is speaking to him – and then, of course, when he starts to really listen – that’s when things start to happen. Did you catch what’s the first thing that God says to Samuel: God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” Tingle! Don’t you love that?! That’s the perfect word for this; as author and UCC pastor Donna Shaper has written, it’s the experience of “hope kicking into high gear, forgiveness writ loud… [feeling] pins and needles all over your body because you [are] so excited” over what God is about to do! In this case, what God is about to do essentially results in the fall of Eli’s house and the rise of Samuel’s; so what we’re seeing here is the beginning of a new life for Samuel as a messenger of God, and the thing is that it begins at the precise moment that Samuel stops to listen!
What this story reminds us is that ours is a God of intrusion; and by that I mean that just when we’ve assumed that, in times like these when the word of the Lord does seem to be rare; when we reluctantly decide that religion ought be something best kept silent and settled, here comes God… quite literally bursting forth into our lives and living, bringing change and disruption and newness of life! Barbara Brown Taylor talks about this; she says that “God’s language is not limited… [and] God’s word is not chained. We cannot capture it in church, in time, in culture. We cannot even capture it between the covers of the Bible, because if [scripture] is God’s true and lively word, then [it’s going to be] inventing new words all the time – percolating with the same creative energy that made heaven and earth.”
Perhaps at the end of the day that’s why you and I are so often reluctant or even afraid to listen: for in truth if we were to really listen for the word of God – in the silence of our hearts; in the journey of our lives; and even in the work of the church – if we really did listen, we might feel that tingle, and that would change everything for us forever!
Some years ago now, I attended a training seminar in Florida as part of the Stephen Ministry program; which is, if you don’t know, a wonderful and very worthwhile ministry of Christian caregiving for laity. I was actually being trained as a Stephen Leader, so that I could go back to my own congregation and equip the people of our church for a ministry of caregiving. Well, part of that training involved learning the mechanics of peer supervision, in which those trained as caregivers gather regularly to discuss their own experiences in a nurturing and confidential manner, so to assure that those people you’re trying to help get the best care possible.
In that regard, we’d been asked the day before to come up with a case study of sorts; to either make something up, or, if it was to be based on something out of real life, take it out of the distant past or at least change it in a significant fashion. And then we would do these role plays as if we were actually meeting as “Stephen Ministers” dealing with a caregiving situation before us. So we’re around this table – there’s eight of us from all over the country and from across the “denominational spectrum” – and through the process we decide to discuss in-depth the situation of this one woman at our table, whose “care receiver,” according to her case study was an 18 year-old boy battling severe depression and now rebounding from several unsuccessful attempts at suicide.
In the course of that conversation, we talked a great deal about how difficult a thing it can be to be a caregiver to somebody in this situation; we spoke about how hard it is to have your heart not break when you see what they’re going through. We talked about the necessity of boundaries, the need for faith and the power of prayer; and we talked about letting go emotionally, and letting God carry the burden. I’ll tell you, friends, I’ve never been a big one for role play as a way of learning (it’s always seemed a little too much like theater to me) but I must confess that afterward I was struck by how very real this experience was and how much I had learned.
Well, then it was all done; we went on to something else, and in fact, I didn’t see that woman again until the last night of the seminar at our closing service of worship. After we had sung a closing hymn, as part of our benediction we passed the peace of Christ to one another; and this is when this woman comes over to me, gives me this big hug, and says simply, “I just want to thank you.” And of course, I’m just kind of looking at her with this clueless look on my face because I don’t know what she’s thanking me for; but then she says, “You know the 18-year-old that I spoke of the other day? That was my son. And I know he’s going to be alright now… but now for the first time in a long time, I know I’m going to be alright. And I just wanted to thank you for that.”
I’ve never forgotten that, mostly because even all these years later I’m still not sure what I said to her that made that kind of difference. But I think maybe it was just that I listened; that all of us around that table listened. In that moment, you see, it didn’t matter that we were in all actuality this group of random strangers who were totally from different places and backgrounds; all that mattered is that when we started to really listen to what was being said in that place, we became kindred spirits in the Lord, and somehow, God’s remarkable, ear-tingling, life-changing word got through. And when that happened, things immediately started to change… for the better.
This is something I’ve always believed very strongly, but it’s something I don’t think that I have said often enough, especially in these days when we’ve all been scattered as a congregation. And that’s that we’re all ministers, you and me; though I might have the “Rev” in front of my name, in this tradition we believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what that means is that every one of us – every one of you – is called to the work of ministry, and invited to it challenges and its joy. It also means that we’ve been equipped and empowered by God; so that we might do what God needs to have done.
Who knows what form that will take in each of our lives… maybe it’ll be to speak the words of love and support that need to be said at a crucial moment; perhaps it’ll be the opportunity we have before us to “teach our children well,” and to nurture them in the Christian faith; maybe it’s to be caregiver of one sort or another; and maybe it’s to stand up and work boldly toward a strong vision of the kingdom of God in this place and in these strange and difficult days. Or maybe it is simply to listen: where you are and to whom is with you at that moment; which trust me, beloved, is no small gift.
But whatever your ministry happens to be, it starts… with listening. There is no limit as to what God can do through you and through me; but it all begins as we tune out the noise and chaos of life and fear and violence and the politics of the world around us… and begin focusing our ears and hearts on the sound of God’s voice in the midst of it all; to listen to God’s call and God’s plan.
God is calling us, beloved; I pray today that we will have the grace to answer, “Here I am, Lord… speak, for we, your servants are listening.”
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.