The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Calls can be tricky things. Sometimes they are clear—knock-yourself-off-a-horse kind of clear such as St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. But at other times….well, not so much. Take the case of Samuel, ministering to the Lord under the supervision of the elderly High Priest, Eli. It’s late at night, and Samuel is lying down in the temple of the Lord and he hears a voice speaking to him: “Samuel, Samuel” and he responds, by running to the elderly Eli. This goes on for a while until Eli—whose eyesight might be dim, but whose faculties are otherwise in excellent order, tells Samuel to listen for a voice other than his own—the voice of the Lord. The third time Samuel hears the voice whispering in the darkness, Samuel responds—and thus begins the career of a young boy, called to be a prophet, whose first task is to issue a harsh word, difficult to hear and frightening to offer, to his mentor.
One of the reasons I love this story, is that it features a young boy—a child, really. A young person who is taken seriously by God as well as a High Priest. Too often we discount the spiritual experiences of children and adolescents—preferring, instead to relegate them to the realm of fantasy—sacrificing them at the altar of reason. Yet the Scriptures are clear, telling us that God doesn’t confine God’s words only to the aged, the well educated, or the powerful. God speaks to young boys in sacred places and young women, such as Mary, in small hamlets such as Nazareth. The key is to find it within one’s heart to listen.
As we gather on a weekend to honor the Civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., yet another prophet, I found myself recalling words written by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in his Narrative. What I find compelling about Douglass’s words is the way his anger and sense of injustice regarding the institution of slavery did not dim his wonder at his circumstances—and a call, which Douglass discerned from God at a young age, a call he carried throughout his life. He writes:
“I look upon my departure from Colonel Lloyd’s plantation as one of the most interesting events of my life. Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind of providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable. There were a number of slave children that might have been sent from the plantation to Baltimore. There were those younger, those older, and those off the same age. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice.
I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.
From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remains like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.”
In his time, Frederick Douglas would become an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman. He became the most important leader of the movement for African American civil rights in the 19th century. He lived into his calling—not simply to make the world better for himself—but for everyone. He spoke his truth, clearly and eloquently, for the world to hear.
This week, people around the world honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., America’s great Civil Rights leader and prophet. Like Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King was willing to speak truth to power. In true prophetic form, this task frequently involved making the people to whom those words were spoken—profoundly uncomfortable.
With this in mind, let’s be sure to spare a moment in praise of the High Priest Eli, of today’s Old Testament lesson, who, for all of his failings, was willing to listen—because God’s message to Samuel is for Eli—and Eli has to work to coax the message out of Samuel—a message that God is deeply disappointed in Eli’s sons, and that they will be punished. Take a moment and imagine hearing that from the Lord. Would any of us be surprised if Eli responded by raising his fists to Samuel, by turning this boy out of the temple, by scoffing at and dismissing words he didn’t want to hear. But Eli….he does none of this. Instead, what we discover is that he surrenders to God, saying, “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.”
Today’s Old Testament lesson challenges us on many fronts. We are encouraged to own our callings from God—to live into them with the willingness to speak difficult truths to those who need to hear them. And if we are the ones to whom those words are spoken? If this is the case, then we need to hear them with an open heart—to listen—and be willing to follow what the Lord says.
All of us are called by God, each in our own way. It might be, like Samuel, through a voice, speaking to us in the night hours, or like Frederick Douglas—through a sense of wonder and providence. Each call is its own. The importance is both in the response and the awareness from whom that call came.
The key, as we learn from the Book of Samuel today resides in both our ears as well as our hearts. We are to be like Samuel, to listen to the words whispered in our ear from the Lord, and to find the courage to speak them well and truthfully, no matter our age or circumstance. Likewise, we are to be like Eli, willing and able to hear those words that are directed to ourselves. Open ears—and open hearts, this is the message for today. Each is an invitation to work towards a better world than the one in which we live at this present time—a world of righteousness and truth a world willing to follow the guidance of the Lord. In Jesus’ name. Amen.