Rev. Teri Peterson
Marchmont St. Giles, Edinburgh
1 Samuel 3.1-21
2 July 2017
Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.
The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.
Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.
Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”
(Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.
Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
The Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”
Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the Lord’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”
“I’m here,” Samuel said.
“What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.
“He is the Lord, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”
So Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the Lord’s prophet. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh because the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh through the Lord’s own word.
When I arrived at my first church as a brand new minister, I discovered that one of the things the church had been putting off doing until the new minister arrived was a confirmation class. They had 20 teenagers waiting, and no plan. Among my first tasks, therefore, was to recruit several teachers and at least 20 mentors who would work with these young people one-on-one.
In making what felt like a hundred phone calls, I lost count of the number of adults who told me they were afraid to talk to children.
Afraid of what, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps afraid that the teens would only know how to talk about mobile phones and video games? Worried that they didn’t know how to have a conversation without a script or curriculum? Or maybe afraid that the kids would have questions about God that they didn’t know how to answer?
I wonder how Eli felt when Hannah dropped off Samuel at the temple, saying “this is the child I prayed for that day we last spoke—here, he’s dedicated to God, so take him in and teach him.” I wonder if he was afraid he wouldn’t have anything in common with a four year old, and wouldn’t be able to relate to him. Did he worry about how to talk about the God that Hannah had promised Samuel to serve?
Scripture doesn’t tell us much about people’s feelings or inner thought processes, but in this case I think it’s possible that Eli felt ill prepared for this task. His own sons were corrupt and he didn’t know how to set them right. And here, a few years after Hannah had left Samuel in the temple, we discover that in spite of his religious duties and his presence beside the ark of the covenant day and night, Samuel does not yet know the Lord, and God’s word has not been revealed to him.
It’s easy to do, isn’t it? To get so caught up in the tasks of the church that we never get around to knowing the Lord. And it’s easy to pass that on, too, as we inadvertently communicate that church or faith is an obligation grown ups bear, rather than a body, a relationship, a way of living, or a family where all are valued. Yet it is to Samuel that God speaks. Even though he doesn’t have the right education or credentials or anywhere near enough years of sitting in the pew or serving on a committee…even though he hasn’t yet been taught, even though to him God is more like a piece of furniture than a living Word…Samuel is still known, by name. God knows where to find him, and how to call him, and God waits patiently while Samuel learns how to be in this new relationship he didn’t even know to expect.
Eli has lost his sight—which, granted, was never particularly good in the first place. When he first met Hannah at prayer, what he saw was a drunken woman, rather than a person pouring out her heart to God. He could not see her, he could only see his assumptions about her. The same seems to be true when Samuel appears at his bedside at night…it takes three tries before reality breaks through. Perhaps he thought Samuel was too young, or too inexperienced, or too ignorant of God’s ways. I suspect many of us have thought the same when a young person has spoken up. Perhaps he was so used to doing things on his own without God that it didn’t occur to him that the Spirit’s voice could still speak. Maybe he was just tired—after all, his own sons were grown, so why did he now have to deal with teaching another round of Sunday School? Whatever the case, he was blinded, whether by his assumptions, his fear, his arrogance, or his apathy.
Once Eli begins to see, though, he becomes the mentor Samuel has needed. He passes on what he knows of prayer, and Samuel heeds his advice and runs back to his bed, probably practicing his lines as he made his way through the dark temple. When God stands at the foot of the bed again, Samuel is ready—or as ready as any of us ever can be. He responds to the voice calling his name, and he listens carefully for what the Lord has to say.
What God has to say at this moment is actually a message for Eli. Perhaps Eli’s blindness extended also to his ability to hear the voice himself. Now, through the collaboration of mentor and student, elder and child, the word of the Lord was becoming known once again. Remember at the beginning of the story we heard that the Lord’s word was rare at the time…and by the end, God is appearing again and again and all the people are hearing the word. In between, a community develops between adult and young person in the house of the Lord.
A little while ago, I heard about a nursing home in Seattle that is also home to a preschool. Every weekday, the home is filled with small children running about, playing games, talking to residents, learning social skills and colors and counting. There are stories of residents with dementia suddenly speaking clearly when they encounter the group of children, and of older people becoming more lively when the children are present, and stories of children becoming accepting of a wide variety of abilities and adaptive devices.
Similarly, in Denmark there is a home where university students live in the empty rooms, spending time with the elderly residents in lieu of paying rent. The students teach their neighbors how to use the computer, they play games and do puzzles, watch movies, eat meals, and hang out together. Both young and old say they love learning from each other and they are less lonely.
So much of our world is stratified by age—we separate out year by year, until we almost never spend time with people older or younger than ourselves, let alone people of different skin colors or religious backgrounds, which makes it much easier to see our assumptions or our fears, rather than to see people, let alone to see what God might be doing. It often feels like the word of the Lord is rare in our days, just as it was when Samuel was a child. But perhaps it’s that we haven’t learned to listen. What would happen if we purposely built relationships across all those lines of age and experience? If we learned to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”—not just in our own beds at night, but also in the presence of our neighbors young and old? Eli and Samuel were able to put aside their blindness and their fear and learn from one another, and it was through their speaking and listening that God was revealed, not just to them but to the whole land.
We might find that we are asked questions we’ve never thought of before, or taught ways of knowing God we haven't encountered. We might discover a deeper faith as we pass on our experience. We might have to make room for other ways of understanding, or for a word from God we didn't particularly wish to hear…but isn't that always the risk when we say “speak, Lord”? We would definitely find that each of us is already known, and loved, and valued…and as we grow together, we will likely find ourselves standing on holy ground.
May it be so. Amen.