Call to Worship/Psalm 81 (NRSV)
Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.
For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt.
I hear a voice I had not known: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.
In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
Hear, O my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.
“But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.
O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!
Then I would quickly subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes.
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever.
I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
You invite us, O God, to live in your ways and you give us to each other to know and to love as we journey in this life. Show us your will for all creation. Help us to listen to your urgings with prayerful hearts so that we may honor what you have made, in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/1 Samuel 3:1-20 (NRSV)
3Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the 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. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and 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. 6The 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.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The 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. 9Therefore 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. 10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
A recent report by Infinium Global Research (which included things like Mattress & Pillows, Sleep Laboratories, Medications and Sleep Apnea Devices and for sleep disorders such as Insomnia, Restless Leg Syndrome, Narcolepsy, Sleep Walking and others) estimates that by 2025 the sleep aids market will reach up to around $114.15 billion USD. In the modern world, where people are plagued with sleeplessness—the simple experience of falling and staying asleep has become something of a luxury. A third of Americans experience brief stretches of insomnia, and a tenth experience three sleepless nights a week for months on end. Sleeplessness alone is responsible for an estimated $63 billion in lost productivity every year in the United States.
The good news for the sleep-deprived is that we’re living in a golden age of sleep aids. A decade ago, “sleep aid” was synonymous with sleeping pills, but these days, medication makes up only 65% of the market. The last several years have seen an explosion of other types of products designed to help people to fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer. Initially, many of these sleep tools were tech gadgets, including sleep trackers, apps, lights, and white noisemakers. But more recently, the trend has shifted toward low-tech products like weighted blankets, temperature-regulating duvets, and pillows with built-in hoods to block out light and keep the sleeper’s head warm.
On the issue of sleep, the great African American preacher, C. Gardner Taylor, once declared from his pulpit: “I am for anything that can help a person get through the night.” I remember a commercial, I believe it was for Nyquil, that showed a sniffling husband flicking on the lamp on the nightstand and saying, “Honey? Are you awake?” To which his sleepy, exasperated wife replied, “I am now!” One can imagine the young Samuel in our text for this morning tossing and turning all night, then getting up and running to old Eli saying, “Are you awake?” And all Eli can say is, “I am now! Go back to sleep, kid, you’re hearing things!”
For some people, the real problem is their dreams. We dream about all kinds of things. For example, most of you know that at one time in my life, I worked in commercial radio. In this recurring dream, all my old radio bosses are there and have assigned me the afternoon drive air shift but haven’t given me any records or CDs to play. So, throughout the dream I am frantically running around the station, going from office to office, closet to closet trying to find music that I can play on the air. There’s dead air between the records I actually do find to play because I keep having to leave the studio to find more music. While this isn’t the sheer terror of say someone dressed as a demented clown coming at me with a knife, it is a disc jockey’s worst nightmare! Then, I have a more sinister dream that occasionally creeps in, usually during a time when I’m dealing with a great deal of stress. In it, I live out just about every mistake I’ve made or disappointment I’ve ever had in my life. Like the time when I was seven and hurt my grandmother’s feelings when the gift she gave me wasn’t quite what I wanted. I so wanted a G.I. Joe, but I should have more graciously received the Reece’s Cups she gave me. Or the time when I got my first speeding ticket or when I made up an excuse to get an extension on a paper in college I should have already finished. It’s like everything bad that has ever happened to me or every mistake that I wish I could go back and correct comes at me in wave after wave, memory after memory. It’s the kind of dream that wakes you up in a cold sweat.
I wonder what Samuel was dreaming on the night he awoke to God’s voice. Was he dreaming about the way things could be because religion in his time had taken a turn for the worse? In the bloody time of the Judges, it seemed that the people of Israel had lost their way and their connection with God. The people vacillated between faithfulness to God, and other times when they took up the worship of the pantheon of the local Canaanite deities that always seemed to offer such great temptation.
The wild, invisible God of Israel who had led them out of bondage in Egypt and through the time in the wilderness, who had appeared in pillars of flame and cloud, with whom they had made covenant at Sinai, who demanded their complete allegiance, seemed distant, aloof. If you read through the stories found in the Book of Judges, you will find that when times were good and harvests were plentiful, the people would forget the source of their blessings and go astray. Then, as soon as they found themselves threatened, at odds with the neighboring countries of Edom or Midian, they would cry out to God for mercy, and God would call forth a leader from the people, a judge—as the Bible refers to them—like Gideon or Samson, Othniel or Shamgar, Deborah or Jephthah, in order to rescue them from their plight, often through battle and bloodshed, and restore their worship of the one true God. And this happened over and over and over again. After a while, it seemed that God had fallen silent—our text says, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.”
As the story begins, Samuel is “ministering to the Lord under Eli.” In a vivid sermon on this Old Testament passage, Barbara Brown Taylor describes what young Samuel’s life in the temple might have looked like:
“We can only guess what it was like for Samuel as the faithful brought their burnt-offerings, their sin-offerings, and their guilt-offerings to the temple. They were burdened, ashen-faced people, most of them, hauling their stubborn animals up to the altar to be killed. There was a great deal of blood, blood splashed on the altar and blood sprinkled on the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sanctuary. The burning incense did battle with the smell but could not beat it; the place stank, no getting around it. Maybe Samuel tended the cauldron where the sacrificial meat was boiled, or helped Eli locate the portion he was allowed to eat as the temple priest. Maybe Samuel was allowed to feed on some of the scraps himself; there was little else for a growing boy to eat.
“At night he lay down by the ark of God, the legendary throne of the invisible king Yahweh that Israel carried into battle at the head of her armies. It was reputed to contain all the sacred relics of the nation’s past: a container of manna, Aaron’s budded rod, the tablets of the covenant. Sleeping next to it had to be like sleeping in a graveyard, or under a volcano.
Not, in other words, a boyhood spent in the park, but a boyhood spent near all that was considered sacred in his day, a boyhood spent in the very household of God. Over the years of his apprenticeship, he enjoyed an insider’s view of religious life. The language of faith was his first language — the language he spoke most fluently. He handled holy objects, listened to whispered prayers, and witnessed moving conversions. Granted, he would also have seen the contradictions, the intrigues, the scandals. But his circumstances would have primed him to know God early and well. Or so I’d like to assume. What the story reveals, however, is surprising: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”
The overarching moral of the story seems to be the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Which is true and probably a good topic for another sermon. But I wonder if the writer of 1st Samuel is also saying something a bit bolder. Something about the spiritual risk involved in becoming too insular, too “churchy.” Something about the shadow side of human institutions — even the most well-meaning and well-run religious ones.
When I think about my own God-saturated upbringing, I am filled with gratitude. I’m so glad I had the privilege to grew up in the Church. To be shaped from earliest memory by its rituals and rhythms. But Samuel’s story gives me pause. Is it possible that my over-familiarity has made it harder for me to hear new and unexpected words from God? Is it possible that my churchiness dulls my ears to God’s call?
If so, I take comfort in the fact that God didn’t give up on Samuel. God called and called and called again. God called until Samuel learned how to listen. According to the religious hierarchies of the day, the people who should have heard God’s voice in this story were Eli and his sons. They were the authorities, the ultimate insiders by birth and by vocation. But they were not the ones God chose.
Instead, God chose Samuel. A child. A boy on the periphery, one whose capacity for openness and wonder was dulled, perhaps, but still recoverable. A child who wasn’t bound by the political interests of his elders. A child who could tolerate an unfamiliar voice and an uncomfortable message — a message that would eventually upend the very institution he knew best.
Samuel didn’t recognize God’s voice the first time or the second time or even the third. Maybe he was having a hard time hearing it because no one else was hearing it in those days. Neither Eli nor his sons did. Maybe it’s hard for us to say “Here I am” that openly because we aren’t really ready for God to come into our bedrooms and our dreams peeking into our innermost selves. Oh sure, Lord, we scrub up and come to church on Sundays, but don’t ever call on us in the middle of the night or in our businesses or our marriages or our friendships. Please, Lord, we’re not ready for that. We say casually, “Here I am, Lord. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” But are we really all that ready for God to come in?
Jesus knew what it meant to say, “Here I am.” Immediately after his baptism, he was led into the wilderness where he was tempted—there he said, “Here I am, torn with hunger and ambition.” At the tomb of Lazarus, he said, “Here I am, heartbroken and grieving.” At the Mount of Olives, he said, “Here I am, desiring so much for this cup to pass by from me.” Even his last night, tossing and turning, unable to sleep, he prays for God’s voice of guidance. Even on the cross during the worst nightmare of all—he was torn, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But at the very end he was at one with God, at peace praying that old Jewish prayer a child would say as the last thing before dropping off to sleep, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” “Here I am, Lord. I am yours completely and fully.”
When was the last time you heard God speak? If you haven’t, there’s no need to worry—neither had Samuel or Eli—and, given their vocation, they practically lived in the church and had led the worship life of the community. The people whom we expect to be closest to God don’t always reach our expectations of them. But my guess is, that most of us in some way or another have heard God’s voice somewhere along the way, be it in a dream, as God spoke to Joseph to warn him about Herod’s wrath, or in the voice of a parent or mentor or teacher who offered a word of wisdom exactly when you most needed it, a moment you remember with all your senses as if it had happened just yesterday. Maybe God has spoken to you even through an adversary—because what they said to you challenged you to think of things in a new way or view the world from a different perspective. Maybe, instead of words, you have heard God speak through creation itself—a fiery sunset, or refreshing breeze on a warm day, or mountain panorama, or the night sky filled with thousands of pinpricks of ancient starlight. When we are confronted with these moments, when the Holy has drawn so close you can feel it all the way down to your toes, may we follow the advice that Eli gave young Samuel and simply offer these words: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’
Prayers of the People
Eternal God, you are the maker of us all, and we are your creation, people formed in your image, as individuals and as a greater community of love; formed and fed and furnished with understanding of who you are and of who and whose we are.
We worship you today in recognition of your calling of us, of your communicating with us, of your caring enough to invite us to share in your creative and healing work. We are here because we have heard you speak in us and through others. Help us, dear Lord, to ever respond to you and your invitation to your grace…
God of all our moments, you speak and you act in the world around us, not only to call all people to you, but also to direct and guide us in the way of healing and wholeness. Awaken us Lord, to hear what you would say to us. Help us to open our ears, our eyes, and our hearts to your presence. Help us to know when it is your voice we are hearing and it when it is our prejudices and desires to which we are paying heed….
Lord, we pray that your church may rise up with a renewed commitment in answer to your call, that your people may be instruments of your grace and love….
We pray for those who consider themselves inadequate and dismiss or avoid your calling in their lives. Give them a new vision, a vision in which you are their strength and their hope…
We pray for those who, in answering your call, must leave the known for the unknown, the oasis for the desert, the comfortable for the uncertain. Grant them courage and steadfast faith…
We pray too, today, O Lord, for those in need—for all who suffer in mind, body, spirit, or relationship….
Loving God, bless us all with an abundant faith, a fruitful ministry, a joyful life. Bless us and all those who gather to continue the work of Jesus, who came to heal, save, and deliver us all, and who taught us to pray as one family, saying…
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Listen for the voice of God as you move through your days.
Trust that the Holy Spirit will guide your choices.
See in each person you meet one for whom Jesus gave his life.
And may God be with you and speak through you;
May Christ Jesus be one with you and raise you to life;
And may the Holy Spirit dwell within you and make you holy.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.