Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” As soon as we hear that the boy Samuel is engaged in the work of ministry, this is how the world around him is described. We may be tempted to assume Samuel himself wasn’t aware of this. After all, his mother Hannah made a deal with God—if she would bear a son, she would give him back to God for the duration of his life. And, so it was.


Shortly after Samuel’s birth, Hannah says, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him [to the temple], that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there forever.” But, even a boy who grows up quite literally in the temple is aware when the world is not quite right; after all, religious communities themselves have never been immune to sin.


Eli the priest was growing older, and Eli’s sons were taking advantage of their positions in the priestly lineage. According to scripture, they ate the sacrifices meant for God. They forced themselves on the women who came to the temple. They exploited whatever and whomever they chose, simply because they could. This happens still today—those days, yes, but these days, too.


This past week a media frenzy erupted when Jesse Duplantis, a televangelist based just outside of New Orleans, solicited funds from his followers to purchase a $54 million dollar luxury jet. “If you pray about it,” Duplantis urged his congregants, “I believe God will speak to you.”[1]


No wonder “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” As Barbara Brown Taylor understands it, “Silence has become God’s final defense against our idolatry.”[2]


In the time of this text, Israel was in a state of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger, and social upheaval. After all, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”


That being the case, we can hardly blame Samuel for his slowness to understand what it is that wakes him up in the middle of the night. God has not been saying much, but all of a sudden God can’t even wait until morning, and God can’t help but choose Samuel, of all people—Samuel, a boy, a minor observer in a giant, broken system; Samuel, the one who even scripture says, “did not know the Lord” yet. Nevertheless, God calls out. “Samuel, Samuel,” the Lord cries.


The boy responds immediately, running to Eli. “Here I am,” he says, but in so doing, he wakes the old man up.


“Go back to sleep,” Eli says.


This happens two more times before any progress is made. Samuel keeps hearing something, and Eli keeps wondering why the boy keeps interrupting his sleep. Finally, on the third go-round, Eli wakes up to what’s going on.


“All right,” he tells Samuel. “Go back to bed. But if God calls you again, stay there. Say only this: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”


So, Samuel trots back to bed, now expecting that the voice will come again. And it does. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread, but here, now, the word of the Lord tears through the silence of the night, and the silence of the times.


I have to tell you, this is my favorite part of this whole story. Yes, lots of scholars point to this moment as a shift in power, and that’s true. Samuel, and no longer Eli, is the recipient of God’s word, but I love this moment for a different reason. I love it because more than being about power, I think it’s about partnership.


Yes, Samuel is called by God, but he needs help to know that’s what is happening. That’s true for all of us, isn’t it? I know it has been true in my life.


I wouldn’t be a pastor at all if I didn’t have a friend who finally said to me, “Stop trying to find other things to do with your life. You were made for the church.” And I wouldn’t be your pastor if Julian Schroder of the PNC hadn’t persisted and called me four times to convince me to agree to an initial phone call, a phone call that then took all of us on the line by surprise.


You see, the reality of God choosing to speak to us—to any of us—is not dependent upon whether or not we hear it or understand it. One of the fundamental convictions of our faith is not just that God is, but that God speaks. That God speaks to us. Scripture is consistent and insistent about this.


In the beginning, in Genesis, in the first chapter of the first book, God speaks creation into being. “Let there be light,” God said, and the darkness receded.[3] And in the end, in Revelation, in the last chapter of the last book, Jesus, himself the very Word of God, says, Come. “‘It is I, Jesus,’ he says, ‘I am the root and the descendent of David; I am the bright morning star. And so the Spirit and I say, “Come.” Let everyone who hears, let everyone who is thirsty, let everyone who wishes, come.’”[4] And all throughout, in between these first and last pages, God speaks there, too.


It is a mighty and lousy temptation of ours, however, to assume that God only speaks to, or God only calls, the professionally religious, or the really extra holy. It was no less a theologian than Martin Luther who said that no livelihood is dearer to God than any other. God, Luther said, calls each of us to the vocation of loving God and loving our neighbors. For some of us it means becoming a clergyperson. For others it means the law or medicine or business or teaching or farming or politics. For some it means music, art, construction, bus driving, street cleaning, plumbing, or floor mopping.


Those are Martin Luther’s words. On this day though, I confess, as we install officers to the work of the church, I am tempted to add, for some it is holding a hand or visiting a hospital or arranging a ride. For some it is running a meeting or deciphering a budget. For some it is explaining to the new pastor, for the fifteenth time, the differences between our ministries in Zimbabwe and our ministries in Zambia.


And on this day, I confess, as we say goodbye and God bless to Richard Frey, I am tempted to add, for some God calls us to audits and building permits, personnel reviews and capital campaigns, financial statements and meetings upon meetings upon meetings.


I keep mentioning meetings, don’t I? It’s part of what makes us Presbyterian, to be sure, but it’s also part of what ties us even closer to this story of Samuel and Eli. Because, much like Samuel and Eli needed each other to recognize the word of the Lord, we need each other to do the same. We can’t be Christian on our own, and we certainly can’t be church on our own.


It takes all of us, together, partners in ministry, listening together for God’s call to us.


Which is why, even as we celebrate the calling of various individuals today, I wonder if we might also start to think of this story as a call story for all of us together—for the collective “we” known as Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. I have been wondering if we are being summoned to start living like a collective Samuel.[5] Because surely, we can all admit, as we hear of children torn from their parents’ arms at our country’s borders, as we hear of church attendance declining and church doors closing, as we hear more and more shots ring out from the hallways of our schools, as we hear rumors of bringing back mental asylums, as we hear of a congressional candidate in Virginia openly referring to Hitler as a hero, it often seems as though we, too, are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare, and visions are not widespread. Much has changed since Samuel’s day…but not enough has changed.


At yet, this story offers hope for living in times like these. Because scripture is clear—it is always into the mix seeming God-forsakenness and human rebelliousness that God chooses to speak to those who choose to listen. God’s voice is persistent, for those who have ears to hear. So, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, what if we are being called at this time, at a time when it seems hard to hear a word from the Lord, when God’s visions do not seem particularly widespread, to be Samuel together?


This is part of the reason I have been hesitant to respond when asked directly, “What is your plan to increase membership in the next five years?” or “What are the steps you need us to take to bring us to financial health?” or “Where do you see the church ten years from now?”


I don’t hesitate because I don’t have ideas. Trust me. No, I hesitate, because even though I have been called to be one of your leaders, I firmly believe that the work of listening for God’s voice and vision is something we do together.


Yes, today we’re celebrating elders and deacons, and church staff, and your pastors and choirs are always up here in front of you, but the work of listening and discerning also includes our Trustees and our teachers, our shelter volunteers and our young adults, our ESL instructors and communion servers, our ushers and our children, our committees and everyone else, and all those who gather in these pews every week—it will take all of us in partnership, living as a collective Samuel but also a collective Eli, together listening for the word of the Lord calling to us.


But here’s the thing about that: this kind of listening is risky. After Samuel listens to the voice of the Lord, he has to tell Eli, his beloved mentor Eli, that his ministry is coming to an unpleasant end. To truly listen for the word of the Lord about our future, is no small thing. Because have you noticed? Every time God calls someone—a call to someone always ends up asking something of someone. So, I wonder, if we are brave enough to engage together into the hard work of listening—what is God going to ask of us?


Risky or not, though, we don’t really have a choice. God’s call is persistent. God called to Samuel over and over again, until Samuel and Eli finally understood. God is always on the move, always doing something new, always calling us to join in on the journey, always calling over and over again until we are willing to listen.


This, then, is what God asks of us. This, then, is where the Spirit nudges us. To listen, together, expecting to hear a word from the Lord, expecting to see a vision for who God desires us to become. God’s call does not give up, or grow weary, or lose strength. God is calling to Samuel even now.


So, let this be our prayer and our purpose. Let this be our mission and our motivation. Let us be a congregation that says, together: Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.


[1] written by Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., published May 29, 2018; accessed online June 2, 2018.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, When God Is Silent

[3] Genesis 1:3

[4] Revelation 22:16-17

[5] This idea of being called as a “collective Samuel” comes from my friend and colleague Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner of Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.