Kally Elliott, Jan 17 Sermon, I Samuel 3, “Speak Lord, your servants are listening.”
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Kally Elliott, Jan 17 Sermon, I Samuel 3, “Speak Lord, your servants are listening.” – powered by Happy Scribe
On August 28, 1963, some two hundred and fifty thousand people converged on Washington in a march calling for jobs, social justice and equal rights. The night before, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived at the Willard Hotel, where he and a small group of advisers began writing the speech that he was to give the next day at the march. Clarence B. Jones, King’s attorney and speech writer, then took the draft and turned it into the speech that King would be tasked to give the next day.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the stage and began speaking, all went according to script, causing Jones to nod and relax. But then all of a sudden, King pivoted, going completely off script, transforming his carefully crafted speech into a sermon. When he saw King push the text of his prepared remarks to the side, Clarence Jones realized what was happening and he leaned over and said to the person next to him, These people out there, they don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.
I have a dream, King said, I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. Sometimes sometimes it’s hard to believe that God still speaks to us, that God’s audible voice isn’t something left for the characters in the Bible.
But I doubt that many of us would argue that the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the words that he proclaimed from the Mall of Washington on that sweltering August day in 1963 were anything less than an incredible word from the Lord, a vision cast for all to imagine God’s dream for the world.
But then fast forward to just over a week and a half ago, on a day when Georgia elected its first black senator and its first Jewish one, we saw frightening images of the Confederate flag being paraded through the Capitol of the United States of America.
And someone someone set up a gallows and noose images that vividly illustrate the sin of white supremacy just steps away from where Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed that his children would live in an America where they would not be judged by the color of their skin.
Other images from that day a little over a week ago that I can’t get out of my head is that of a police officer being dragged down the steps of the Capitol building and beaten with a flagpole, a man draped draped in a Trump flag bowed before a giant wooden cross.
Or the images of flags with Christian symbols flying alongside Make America Great Again, 20-20 banners, or the elongated red, white and blue flag proclaiming that Jesus is my savior and Trump is my president on either side…
Blowing prominently in the foreground as the mob kicked in the Capitol door, author and Camp writes, Faith that is intoxicated with power has never drink Christ’s cup.
When Christians make an idol out of nation, they make an altogether false Christ. The King of Kings is never for one country, but for one kingdom.
And when Christians believe pledging allegiance to a national leader can save their vision of the world, that is no longer Christianity. That is nationalism and cloaked in idolatry. As Christians, our first allegiance is to Christ, the Christ that was crucified by the state, Jesus cared about politics, but never because he wanted to gain power for himself. It wasn’t about self-interest for Jesus.
It was about caring for the interests of others so that they would know that God is interested in them.
It’s strange and truly painful to me that those of us who call ourselves Christians, some of them my own family members, can find ourselves on opposite sides of such a great chasm of how we believe that our faith moves us to think and to act.
What happened to the incredible word from the Lord, the vision cast for all to imagine articulated in Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon, his dream.
Has God stopped speaking? Has God given up on us? As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has reflected on our day and age. Silence has become God’s final defense against our idolatry in the story of Samuel. The scripture begins by telling us that at the same time that Samuel was a young boy interning to be a priest in the temple, the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.
And it would make sense that God had kind of given up on the people.
The world at the time of Samuel was full of idolatry, rebelliousness and injustice and not just out there, but for Samuel, it was all happening right here, right in the temple where he lived, intertwining faith with idolatry and injustice.
Immediately before this chapter, we read about the sad state of Eli’s family, his sons, to be exact. According to this biblical narrative, Eli’s sons were taking full advantage of their position in the priestly lineage.
They were stealing from the offerings and demanding more and more from the working class people.
They were sleeping with the women who served in the temple. And while the Bible does not use this language, it seems quite clear that it was not consensual.
It probably didn’t feel all that wrong to Eli’s sons. They were the priest’s sons, after all. And when you’re that important, well, they figured they could do anything.
They were skimming off the top and living in luxury. They were at the top of the priestly caste and they took full advantage of their power and their privilege. And Eli? Well, I mean, to his credit, he spoke to his sons and he he asked them to stop.
What more could he do?
His sons? They were special to him. He loved his sons. And it must have been a really tough spot for him.
They were grown men, after all, free to make their own choices.
And Eli was older and frailer and physical strength, unable to see well, no match for his strong sons. So after stating his opinion, Eli shrugged and took comfort that at least he wasn’t participating in their evil and corruption and violence. Strangely enough though, it was precisely into this mix of seeming god-forsaken -ness, that God chose to speak. Samuel, Samuel, God called. Here I am, replied Samuel.
And then and then he ran to Eli, who he thought was the one calling him, you know, needing help, maybe wanting a glass of water in the night. But Eli said, wasn’t I who called you go back to bed. Three times this happened before it finally dawned on Eli that it was God who was calling Samuel. Oh, oh, go back and lie down.
And when you hear that call again, Samuel, say speak for your servant is listening.
Now, I don’t know why God chose to speak to Samuel of all people. Samuel was just a boy. He was a peripheral player in the broken temple system.
Samuel, the scriptures say he didn’t even know the Lord yet, but perhaps God chose Samuel because he was still curious enough to not just assume that things had to stay the way they were, you know, corrupt and dangerous and unjust.
Or perhaps God chose Samuel because out of all the people in the temple, he was the only one who wouldn’t just pontificate about God, but he might actually listen to God. Did you catch that? God does not speak God’s vision, God’s dream, until after Samuel indicates that he is willing to listen. Speak for your servant is listening, and when God speaks, Samuel gets an earful. Enough to make Samuel wish he had just gone back to sleep.
Time is up for Eli and his sons.
Time is up for those men who used their power to oppress and intimidate and to violate.
Time is up for Eli, who allowed their behavior to go unchecked. It is time for a new voice. It is time for an end to this unjustice.
Well, after that, Samuel, he lay awake all night, I mean, how could he sleep after hearing this word from the Lord after being given this vision and he was afraid he was going to have to deliver this grim message to Eli.
I guess it turns out that listening to God is risky.
I mean, he could just put the pillow over his head, mind his own business, sweep the temple, light the lamps, make sure the hymnals and the pews are all in order. But those that listen to God, those that really listen, often find themselves being called to do the hard things.
Moses was called to defy Pharaoh and lead the people out of slavery.
Esther was called by God through the voice of her uncle to stand up to the king, something no queen had ever survived.
Mary, the unwed virgin was called by God through the angel to carry God’s son.
Paul, the itinerant rabbi was called to give up killing Christians in the name of God and instead, to follow Christ.
Like Samuel, Dr. King also had a call in the night, like Samuel, he found that listening to God is dangerous.
In January of 1956, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was twenty seven years old and had been leading the Montgomery bus boycott, he received yet another threatening phone call. This one touched a nerve and left him shaken.
And he sat in his kitchen at midnight and he prayed, Lord, Lord, I’m down here trying to do what is right, but I must confess, I’m losing my courage.
King later explained what happened next. He said, I could hear an inner voice saying to me, Martin Luther, stand up for truth, stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. The story of Samuel is often referred to as a call story. A story about how God calls an individual to a particular ministry, and if we are willing to listen, we might each discover our own calling. Presbyterian Minister Frederick Buechner put it this way, the place where your deep joy intersects with the world’s deep hunger, that is your call.
And every single one of us is invited into God’s work. Our challenge is to discern not if, but how we will participate.
I’ve been wondering this week if perhaps we might also start to think of this story as a call story for all of us together, for the collective we known as the congregation and the friends of First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon.
I have been wondering if we are being summoned to start living like a collective Samuell because the church has been rather silent. We’ve let the witness of Christ be defamed by the discipleship of Christian nationalism. We’ve let the black and brown members of the body of Christ suffer. And I wonder if the word of the Lord has been calling to us all along through the voices of our black and brown family, through all the voices of those who have been daring to dream of a nation where they will be valued for the content of their character and cherished for their humanity.
I wonder if God has been calling and like Samuel, we just didn’t recognize the voice, or if we simply put the pillow over our head and tried to go back to sleep.
But now it’s time. It’s time for us to say, speak Lord, for your servant is listening. After all, it has always been into times like these. Times when suffering is rampant and injustice is the norm and the world seems altogether forsaken by God, that according to our biblical witness, God chooses to speak to those who choose to listen.
So what if we what if we, as the church, are called at this time to be Samuel together? Like I said before, it is risky, this listening to God. Remember what Samuel had to tell Eli about his ministry coming to a fiery end? Makes me wonder what God’s call for us might ask of us. I wonder what God’s vision will cost us if we say, “speak for your servant is listening”. What will we hear? And then how will we respond?
You know, I’ve mostly tried to stay away from being one sided, extremely to the left to the right, up or down. I pride myself on being able to see both sides of an argument to be able to pastor those of you who find yourselves questioning the stances we often take here at First Presbyterian Church. But I’m beginning to understand that when God is speaking, when God is crying out in the voices of fellow humans, I have to listen. And I have to answer, especially when it means taking sides.
For a while, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also tried to remain somewhat neutral, but soon found that by following Jesus, he had to take a stand and by doing so, he was labeled an extremist by fellow clergy.
His response was to write his seminal letter from the Birmingham jail, and he wrote, But I thought… But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.
Was not Jesus, an extremist for love? love your enemies.
Was not Amos an extremist for justice? Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel? I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.
Was not Martin Luther an extremist? Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. So help me God.
And Abraham Lincoln? This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.
And Thomas Jefferson? We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be?
Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremest for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice?
Friends, what we saw at the Capitol was extremism, no doubt about it.
But it was extremism for hate, for status quo, for idolatry and injustice. Will that be the kind of extremism that we, the church are known for? Or, will we listen to and answer God’s call to be extremists for love?
I believe it is time for us to live as Samuel, and to listen as a people to the word of the Lord, to the vision, the dream being given to us through the voices of those we have continually silenced, for God is not done with us.
And God is still calling Samuel, calling you, calling me, calling us.
So speak Lord, for your servants are listening.