Call and response – January 14, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-20 Joan of Arcadia was a TV show in the early 2000’s about a high-school student who was called by God. Joan was just an average teenager when one night she wakes up to someone calling her name: “Joan… Joan!” It’s the middle of the night, and she wakes up with a start, and then puts her headphones back on her ears, presumably with music playing, and turns over to go back to sleep. The next morning as she’s getting dressed for school, she sees a young man, another teenager, out in the backyard, watching her. She is understandably upset, and runs downstairs, calling to her police chief father. But it turns out there is no evidence that anyone was there.
Later, on the bus on the way to school, Joan sees this young man watching her. He gets off at the same stop near school and they soon have their first encounter. When this cute-boy first tells her that he is actually God, Joan’s response is unequivocal: “Never speak to me, again!” And a few minutes later: “Get lost, I mean it!” But God is persistent and finally after school they have an extended conversation. God tells Joan that he is “going to be dropping in on her, now and then.” Joan is surprised by this, to say the least, and sputters… “why?” God responds: “let’s just say I need you to do some errands.” “Why?” God continues to ignore her ‘why’s’, and instead asks Joan to get a job at a local bookstore.
God’s call to Joan in this pilot episode is only the beginning. The show continues for 2 seasons, with Joan, along with her family and friends, experiencing the good, the bad and the ugly as Joan slowly understands when it is God talking to her, and seeks to faithfully do whatever God asks. It is difficult at times because God doesn’t always appear as that cute boy and God isn’t always clear about how she is to accomplish what she is being asked to do… sometimes she gets it right, and sometimes she gets it wrong. She responds to God’s call by doing what God asks, even when it is a most difficult option. Her life likely would be easier, if less interesting and meaningful, had it just continued along without God.
Today we hear the biblical story of the call of Samuel. I suspect that if we know anything at all about this story, most of us only know the first half when Samuel mis-understands God’s call until his mentor Eli explains. Samuel finally responds to God as instructed: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” As one commentator notes, “in the church’s use of this text the focus has almost always been on [the first half] as a simple story of God’s call and the way in which we often fail to recognize it. In such traditional use, the passage becomes a generalized story of God’s calling…” (NIB, 994) But the context of the call matters.
The context of this story is of an important transition point in the history of Israel. Samuel arrives in the time between Israel as a loosely connected tribal society lead by tribal leaders called ‘the judges,’ and Israel as an organized kingdom first under Saul and then David. The historical book of the Judges, immediately before Samuel, ends with a key phrase summarizing where they’ve gotten to: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Jug 21:25) The tribal society with the judges as leaders worked for a while, but the system was falling apart. The nearby Philistines constituted an imminent external security threat and a debate about kingship was about to grow until God relents, and gives the people the king they so desire.
Samuel’s mentor Eli is, it turns out, the last in an historical line of priests. We are told in 1 Samuel 2:11 that “the sons of Eli were scoundrels.” I won’t go into the details, even though the bible does… just imagine what a scoundrel is like: dishonest, drinking too much, sleeping around. You can check out 1 Samuel 2 if you want the gory details. Immediately before the passage we heard today, a ‘man of God’ comes to Eli and tells him that his legacy is lost, saying: “a time is coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your ancestor’s family…” (1 Sam 2:31) Eli’s family will no longer have the position, the status, it has had until now. God is going to find a new faithful priest to fulfill the role.
And then comes the passage we hear today. It begins with the sad statement: “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (3:1) Contrary to a general religious awakening, Samuel is called as a prophet, as one writer says, “in a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger and social upheaval.” (NIB, 994) It is a harsh situation… and Samuel receives a harsh message.
More than a story of generalized religious awakening, or even of God’s call to Samuel, today we also hear the second half of the story and God’s message to Samuel. By the end of the passage, it is Samuel’s courage to share God’s message, and Eli’s courage to hear it, that leads to all Israel hearing God’s word and Samuel being confirmed as “a trust-worthy prophet of the Lord.” The difference between just considering the call story or also considering what happens next, gets to the heart of what really matters. As one writer reflects: “We sometimes celebrate so-called mountaintop religious experiences as ends in themselves, without considering what the God we encounter in religious experience demands of us. Samuel is called to deliver a harsh message of judgment that is necessary if there is to be a hopeful new beginning for Israel in this trying time.” (NIB, 994)
It makes sense why in the tradition of the church we’ve mostly stuck with the first half of the story. It’s appealing to hear a story of a beautiful, if innocuous, encounter with God. We too want to have a lovely experience of God. We want the “mountaintop religious experience.” But we don’t necessarily want to hear what God has to say in those mountaintop experiences and we definitely don’t want to hear about God’s judgement. I suspect that most of us react to God’s call in much the same way Joan of Arcadia in the TV show did: “Never speak to me again!” And “Get lost!” We want feel-good spirituality that doesn’t disrupt our comfortable lives or ask too much of us. Both Samuel and Joan of Arcadia have the gift and privilege of encountering God directly, and both of them have their lives turned upside down as a result of their obedience to the messages they receive.
Samuel receives a harsh message from God to deliver to his mentor Eli, and Samuel is understandably fearful and reluctant to share it. But Eli is faithful and courageous, even if his sons aren’t, and he wants to hear what God has to say, whatever it may be. I wonder if we have such courage and faith to speak difficult truths and to hear difficult messages? I wonder if we have the courage and faith of Eli and Samuel to recognize and fulfill the roles to which we are called? I wonder if we willing to follow God’s instructions, and have our lives turned upside down? I wonder if we are willing to live a faith beyond having experiences of God as ends in themselves, and allowing them instead to encourage us to follow God’s direction into the future?
As this new year, 2018, begins, may we too look for a hopeful new beginning in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. May we act on God’s instructions, even if they turn our lives upside down in the service of God’s mission in the world. May we trust that God will continue to come to us, to call us, in familiar and surprising ways, bringing messages of comfort and challenge. And may we remember that God will be with us every step of the way.