I’m really drawn to this story of old Eli and the boy, Samuel. For many of us, it seems far-fetched that God would speak in an audible voice and call us by name. Maybe that’s why the main character of this story is a child. Children have exploring, inquisitive minds that haven’t been beaten down and exhausted by the realities of life. Children are freer to ask questions, be honest, and playfully encounter the unknown. My youngest daughter, Beatrice, has one of those personalities. At one and a half years old, she would fall asleep with whatever item sparked interest in her spirit that day. Beatrice would snuggle and fall asleep with things like a piece of paper with the letter ‘B’ printed on it, a plastic sand shovel, a sea shell, even an unused laundry detergent scoop.
One of the items I remember that Bea snuggled with the most was my father-in-law’s old Nextel walkie-talkie style flip phone. Of course, the phone was disconnected and powered off. But even so, Bea would make up conversations with family members, cartoon characters, and imaginary friends. She would fall asleep with this old phone up to her ear night after night after having long and make-believe conversations.
One day, Beatrice was carrying around her phone, in deep and meaningful conversation with someone on the other end, when Amanda asked Bea whom she was talking to so intently. Bea, slightly irritated, responded, “I’m tawkin’ ta Shee-shus!” I’m talking to Jesus. If we had been more inquisitive, I would’ve loved to ask a follow-up question to see what Bea and Jesus were talking about. But, as an old priest like Eli, I probably wouldn’t have heard the voice anyway. As an old priest I could’ve told Beatrice to listen. I could have worked harder to value her young and small voice; reminded her to trust, to pay attention, and learn how to follow. It seems many of us might need to be more like the young Samuel and open ourselves to the voice of God, while others of us might need to be more patient and encouraging like Eli.
For many of us, the story of Eli and Samuel is in our “Top 10” stories in the Hebrew Bible. The boy, Samuel, was dedicated to be a servant in the Temple by his mother, Hannah, right after he was weaned, which would’ve been about three years old. So, the only person that Samuel really knew well as he transitioned from toddlerhood to childhood was the priest Eli and Eli’s rigid rituals of the religious system, the rules of the Temple priests. You see, Eli had grown old and complacent, caring only for the irrelevant ministries of that Temple in Shiloh, while religious zeal and passion for God had dwindled throughout the land. The word of the Lord, according to our text this morning, was nowhere to be found.
Samuel, a young boy who was used to hearing words from the head priest, Eli, hadn’t really heard any words or instruction from the Divine. God’s voice was unfamiliar to him. And so, as Samuel was sleeping in the sanctuary, near the altar of the Lord, a new word came to him. And that new word wasn’t a grand vision or powerful plan. No, the word was his name. “Samuel! Samuel! Samuel” Three times Samuel heard his name being called and three times he ran to wake up Eli, asking if it was him. And every time Eli told the boy that it was not he that called and to go back to sleep. On the third occurrence, Eli realized, even in his comfortable and complacent state, that God’s new word for God’s people was Samuel’s name. God was not only speaking out again in the Temple, but was calling Samuel by name! And so, Eli told Samuel to go back to bed and to listen for God’s voice. When God called out to him yet again, this time, Samuel obediently listened and responded. A new word had entered God’s Temple. A new word had come to the world and it was a name.
In the past, every time I read this text, I put myself in the place of Samuel, the inquisitive and energetic listener. But, I realized something recently. I am Eli. I am the old, religious establishment. I am the complacent and clog-eared priest, who tends to bypass the creative voice of God. It’s easier to go through the motions and feel like I know it all, that God is ok with me, and that I am not being called to anything important. There might have been a time in the past when I identified with Samuel, but not anymore. Professor Will Willimon of Duke Divinity School feels the same way. He said, “Back in my angry young man, prophetic, granola days, I could have identified with Samuel. I was the young pastor who was sent to disrupt the church in South Carolina, who came with a fresh new word that had not been heard before I got there, ready to overturn, and pluck up, and tear down so that something new might be built up. But not now.”
This biblical text urges me to evaluate how we all hear God differently. I feel that we, as listeners of the divine, have both Eli and Samuel inside of us. Not only do the words of God come to use in different stages and ages of our lives, but we are called to notice the ebb and flow of the power we possess. Could it be that many of us feel like Eli and are too smug in our opinions and deaf to anything new? Could it be that many of us are Samuel and sleeping in our naivete, thinking the voice of God is only a dream? Or what if we are being beckoned by this text to hear both of the voices, both of the struggles, and both of the fears as Eli and Samuel are both being called by God? This text is rich with ways to listen and ways to see ourselves in the story. Yet, whether we are Eli or Samuel or just plain old Mike, we are probably afraid of that voice that comes out of the darkness, that voice waking us from our sleep, that voice maybe we haven’t heard in a long time. We’re afraid when God calls our names because that means God expects something from us. God expects a response. And our response, as modeled by Samuel, is, “I’m here, Lord. I’m listening.” God calling our names is scary stuff.
But what if, this year, we are to open ourselves up to the places where God is uniquely calling us? What if we are to awaken, whether we are young or old, complacent or energized, hurting or happy, dynamic or depressed? What if we pushed through our fears of God calling our names and realize that the journey God has for us is one of profound purpose and power. Listening has been easy for some of us during COVID isolation, while listening has been much more difficult for others of us as the buzzing of technology, the beeping of medical machines, the dwindling of bank accounts, and the tension of relationships makes listening, really listening, so very hard. In whatever space or place we are in, God is calling us to go out and live into our names as beloved creations of God.
Will Campbell was a Baptist minister and civil rights activist and award-winning author, based in Mississippi in the 1960’s and 70’s. Campbell’s prophetic ministry helped others gain insight into what it truly meant to be a follower of Jesus as well as earned him death threats and violent opposition along the way.
As a Baptist, Campbell was familiar with the practice of the altar call, where people were invited to indicate a response to Christ by walking to the front of the church and being prayed for. Yet in a sermon once, Campbell turned the idea of the altar call on its head. He said, “I hope that someday there will be an evangelistic service in which, when the preacher gives the invitation and people start coming down the aisle, he (or she) yells back at them, ‘Don’t come down the aisle! Go to Jesus! Don’t come to me! Go to Jesus!’” Campbell continued, “Upon that declaration, the people who were coming down the aisle turn around and exit the auditorium and get in their cars and drive away. He (or she) then yells at the rest of the congregation, ‘Why are you hanging around here? Why don’t you go to Jesus too? Why don’t you all go to Jesus?’ The people rise en masse and quickly leave the church, and soon the parking lot is empty.”
“What I imagine is that about a half hour later the telephone at the police station starts ringing off the hook, and the voice at the other end says, ‘We’re down here at the old-folks’ home and there’s some crazy people at the door yelling that they want to come in and visit Jesus, and I keep telling them Jesus isn’t in here! All we have in here is a bunch of old ladies who are half dead. But they keep saying, “But we want to visit Jesus! We want to visit Jesus!”
“The next call is from the warden down at the prison. He’s saying, ‘Send some cops down here! There’s a bunch of nuts at the gate and they’re yelling and screaming,’ ‘Let us in there! We want to visit Jesus! We want to visit Jesus!’ I keep telling them that all we have in this place are murderers, rapists, and thieves. But they keep yelling, “Let us in! We want to visit Jesus!”
“No sooner does the cop at the desk hang up the phone than it rings again. This time it’s the superintendent of the state hospital calling for help. He’s complaining that there are a bunch of weird people outside begging to be let in. They, too, want to see Jesus! The superintendent says, ‘I keep telling them Jesus isn’t here. All we have here are a bunch of nuts, but they keep yelling at us, ‘We want to see Jesus.’”
Will Campbell’s story reminds me that God is calling to us, each of us by name, and our mission is to see Jesus in every single person. We are called to see and know that every person has a name and a unique created journey for this world. And we, like Eli and Samuel, need one another along the way. We are not traveling this journey alone. Eli needed the passion, creativity, and openness of Samuel and Samuel benefitted from the wisdom, experience, and calmness of Eli. Rev. Rosyln Lee says, “We journey along with others who, at times, help us as Eli helped Samuel. And there are times when we are to support and guide [also] as Eli did for Samuel. Such accountability and cooperation are critical parts of our personal faith, but are also critical in the building up of the beloved community.”
Famous feminist activist and author, Gloria Steinem, was invited to give a speech at Smith College. She related an important life lesson she learned during her time as a student. Steinem was studying geology and, on a fieldtrip, saw a large turtle that had hauled itself out of the Connecticut river, up a couple of embankments and was now on a trajectory towards the road. Fearful for the turtle she turned it around and pushed, shoved and hauled a now very angry amphibian back to the river. It was at this point her geology professor came by and informed Steinem that the turtle had probably spent weeks of exhausting effort getting up those embankments and now, just as it was near its nesting spot Steinem had turned it around. The life lesson? Steinem said, “I realized that this was the most important political lesson I learned, one that cautioned me about the authoritarian impulse of both left and right. [And that lesson was,] always ask the turtle.”
God is asking us this morning to follow. God is calling our names. We might feel like Eli, stuck, complacent, tired. We might feel like Samuel, naïve, eager, and inexperienced. Yet, in whatever place God has us, God is calling our names and we are to push through the unknowns and our fears. We are to push through our misunderstandings and misgivings of other people. We are to push through the sleepiness and awaken to how God is not only saying our names but proclaiming powerfully that the names of all people in this world are called “beloved.” “Mike! Mike!” “Yes, Shee-shus, I am listening!”
 Source: Biographical information from University of Southern Mississippi website. Sermon reported in Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You A Story