One Saturday morning when I was 8 years old, my dad called from down the hallway, “Julie, come here!” I came out of my room. “Listen!” dad said. “can you hear it? It’s coming from the kitchen!”
We went into the kitchen, and sure enough, I could hear a voice calling my name: “Joooolieee…. Joooolie!!!”
“It’s the Lord!” my dad said. Now I knew the story of Samuel, who was called by God as a child. But my dad is a terrible liar. “No, it’s not!” I said, just before my dad busted up laughing. It wasn’t the Lord—it was my brother on the roof, helping my dad fix a leak, Who had found he could call down the vent for the kitchen sink drain.
Today’s lessons are actual call stories, stories about how God spoke to people
and called them into service. In John’s gospel, disciples of John the Baptist shift allegiances to follow the new rabbi, Jesus. These first disciples will invite others to join them, and follow Jesus as he confronts the Jewish leadership of his day.
In our Old Testament lesson, God calls the boy Samuel to proclaim judgment
on the house of his mentor, Eli, challenging the powerful temple priesthood.
It is important to note that in biblical times, the religious leadership and the political leadership worked hand in hand. In many cases, they were one and the same.
And so sometimes a calling from the Lord was more than a call to individual faithfulness.
For some, it was a call to speak a word of truth in the political sphere as well as the religious domain.
Samuel’s call is a case in point.
He had lived at the temple as an apprentice to Eli,
having been dedicated to the Lord’s service as a toddler.
Learning the trade, he took his turns in the temple.
One night, he heard a voice calling him.
Thinking it was his master, Eli, he came to him, only to find out Eli had not called.
It happened three times, and finally Eli perceived it was the Lord calling to Samuel.
The encounter begins Samuel’s career as a prophet in Israel—
A prophet who will anoint kings and set Israel on a straight course.
If the story ended there, I’d be a lot more comfortable preaching this sermon today.
But the first thing Samuel is called to proclaim in the name of the Lord is judgment.
You see, Eli’s sons were next in line in the temple leadership, and they were a corrupt pair.
They used their powerful position to coerce worshippers into giving them the meat
meant for the sacrifice. This was a sin against the people and the Lord, and the law of Moses made it clear that such offenses were to be immediately stopped and the offenders cast out of the community. But Eli turned a blind eye. And so the Lord told Samuel to proclaim the word of the Lord: “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.”
Samuel had to speak judgment on Eli’s house, the leadership of the people.
He had to call out the wrongdoing of his teacher, mentor, and surrogate father.
Samuel was afraid to tell Eli. What would happen to him if he spoke this word of truth?
He could be kicked out of the temple, fired as an apprentice. Where would he go? Who would take him in? He was only a boy. Maybe it wasn’t worth it.
It is MLK weekend, and Samuel’s fear made me remember a story I heard
when I visited King’s house in which he lived during the Montgomery bus boycott.
King and his family arrived in Montgomery, AL, in 1956, and King served Dexter Ave Baptist Church. He was only 27 years old, but people noticed his confidence, his intelligence, his capacity for leadership, and soon he was among those at the helm of the boycott meant to highlight the necessity to integrate the city’s buses.
It was in the early days of the bus boycott Organizers had expected it to last a few days, but it stretched on for months. By this point, the segregationists recognized the economic threat of the boycott. King and his family were receiving death threats over the phone, as many as 40 calls a day. It reached an apex late one Friday night in January. King slumped home after another long strategy session, Coretta asleep. The phone rang, a sneering voice on the other end: "Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die."
King's fear surged; he hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands,
put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table.
And that’s where he prayed this prayer:
Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I still think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.
(stop sharing the screen)
I think it is worth pausing over this place in the story.
Because often we think of the greats of our faith, whether it be MLK or Samuel,
as if they never had doubts or struggles.
As if they were born spiritual heavy weights
and didn’t have any qualms facing the cost of their discipleship.
And in a way, that lets us off the hook.
Because we aren’t born that way—we’re just average people.
We don’t need to speak out, risk anything, cause conflict.
We can just be faithful quietly, peacefully.
Except that sometimes the work of God is anything but peaceful.
Sometimes the work of God is holy disruption.
And sometimes we are called upon to speak the word, to tell the truth, to do the right but hard thing. It may cost us, but what is the price of silence?
How many more injustices will continue, all because we and others like us do not speak?
Dr King decided to continue on.
(share screen - slide of me in the kitchen with the prayer in the sidebar)
Because in his moment of doubt, he too heard the voice of the Lord.
King wrote in his book, Stride Toward Freedom:
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."
Brothers and sisters, it’s the week of the inauguration.
We have been shocked by the violence at the Capitol,
The words and events that preceded and followed it.
We pray for peace, strong leadership, and good governance.
But we must also pray for the ability to hear God’s voice on when and how to speak.
Our president repeated the false claim that the election was stolen from him
despite multiple recounts and 50 court cases which bore out the fact it was a fair election.
Mr. Trump lost. But many do not believe it, and some acted out violently to wrest power back.
What do we as people of faith do with this?
There are people on both sides of the divide in our families and in this congregation.
If it were a matter that we could agree to disagree on, we could continue to focus on what unites us: our love for God and one another, our call to serve our neighbor.
But our scriptures show us that loving God and neighbor sometimes requires calling out wrong.
If we don’t speak up about falsehood and violence, it will continue.
I am not here to pick a fight with members who feel our president was treated unjustly,
nor to tell you to confront your family member or neighbor about their politics.
Sometimes it really is best to stick with common ground.
I also am not suggesting that we make politics a regular feature of sermons or other church business. But I am saying that we need to open up space to speak the values of scripture and apply them to contemporary life, including public life.
We cannot be so afraid of dividing our congregation that we lose sight of God’s values of
righteousness and justice and care for the poor that our scriptures proclaim.
We must pray for the ability to hear God’s voice on when and how to speak.
We do that together as a community, with our diverse perspectives.
As we do so, we look to Jesus for direction.
Jesus modeled engagement with his political and religious opponents.
Jesus knew that his followers would have conflict in their families and society
so he taught them to rely on prayer and showed them how to love their enemies.
We are called to listen for the voice in the night that both challenges us and reassures us.
We are called to listen to one another, and to love even in the face of conflict and division.
God is with us despite our doubts and fears.
We are called to join Samuel and Dr King in answering the call.