1 Samuel 3:1-19 and Ephesians 4:1-16
September 6, 2009
Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington
It is that age-old, timeless question that keeps being asked over and over again. Elementary school students ask the question. Individuals keep asking the question once they get to junior high school. While in high school, guidance counselors are trained to help students explore the answer to the question. We continue to ask the question while in college. At the mid-point of our lives, we resume asking the question. It is an important question – perhaps one of the most important questions we ask. And, countless individuals and voices around us seek to answer the question for us.
What should I do with my life?
We take tests that inform us of our key strengths. We ask individuals to tell us what they think we should do. We go to graduate school with a plan in mind at times and uncertainty at other times. We long to have the answer brought to us on a silver platter – for God to somehow show us the direct path we are to take. But finding the answer to the question is not always easy. And even when the answer comes, we often work hard to place the answer aside, doing other things instead.
Howard Thurman, the man who was once dean of Howard’s Rankin Chapel before going on to the same position at Boston University, presented a baccalaureate address called, “The Sound of the Genuine.” Like many baccalaureate addresses, Thurman had plenty to say about one’s life work. Thurman said on this occasion, “There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again - you are the only one. And if you miss the sound of the genuine in you, you will be a cripple all the rest of your life.”
The sound of the genuine is that which gives us joy. It is that perfect mix of our gifts – the gifts God has given to us – the unique qualities and characteristics that make us who we are. And, Thurman points out the danger of what can happen when we are unable to hear this sound, when we somehow find ourselves crippled because we are doing something that we are not called to do.
He writes, “There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the genuine in yourself—and if you can not hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
There are sounds all around us. Already today, we have heard hundreds of sounds if we have been careful enough to listen. There are also voices all around us, and many of these voices tell us what we should be doing. Many of us were taught as children that if we wanted to be really successful in life then we should consider two vocations, being a doctor or being a lawyer. Others of us were told to follow the family footsteps and do the same thing our fathers and grandfathers do. The Army told us that enlisting was the way we could be all we could be. Most voices told us to try to make as much money as possible. Other voices taught us what it means to be successful. Today, many of these voices sound promising. Many of these voices tell us that the only thing that matters is money and status. We are taught that fun is for the weekends, and joy is reserved for Saturdays and Sundays but not Mondays thru Fridays. And we are tempted to give into these voices, to heed their call, to sign on to being puppets on a string. We are tempted to give in to the voices around us instead of listening to the sound of the genuine. In fact, we often cannot even hear the sound of the genuine because there are so many competing voices and sounds speaking to us.
We are trained early in life to ask the question, “What do you do for a living?” But what exactly is “living?” What if we were to ask instead, “What do you to for life?” and believe that life – real, abundant life – could be found in what we do for a living – that the two are not mutually exclusive?
We spend so much time in our jobs. And some of us do things that we love on any given day while others of us do things we hate. Some of us rise up singing, ready to go to work while others would do anything to stay in bed and avoid work. Some of us have a job. Others of us have discovered our calling. We have found our vocation.
Frederick Buechner writes this about vocation, “Like ‘duty,’ ‘law,’ and ‘religion,’ the word ‘vocation’ has a dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is really not dull at all.” He continues to write that vocation “is the work that we are called to in this world, the thing that we are summoned to spend our lives doing. We can speak of ourselves as choosing our vocations, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of our vocations choosing us, of a call’s being given and lives hearing it, or not hearing it. And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing.”
We turn, then, to our Old Testament lesson for the day. Samuel is the son of a woman who was barren for a good part of her life. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was a barren woman who desperately wanted a child. She made a deal with the Lord that if she were to conceive, she would set apart her child as a nazarite until the day of his death. She promised to set him apart as one who would not shave his head or drink wine or other strong beverages. The Lord eventually hears the cries of Hannah and grants her request. Hannah conceives a child and gives birth to Samuel.
And, Hannah keeps her promise. She keeps Samuel close to the temple. When Samuel is still a child, we see him dressed in a linen garment, ministering to the Lord under Eli the priest in the temple.
The story read today begins by telling us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions were not widespread. There might be many other voices speaking, but God’s voice is hard to hear.
We are also told that it is nighttime. Eli is lying down in his room with the lamp of God burning nearby. Samuel is lying down in the temple. And here, in the temple, Samuel hears the word of the Lord. The Lord calls Samuel by name but Samuel supposes the voice calling him is that of Eli. Samuel runs to Eli saying, “Here I am,” but Eli explains that he has not called him. Samuel returns to the temple and lies down again only to hear his name being called once more. Again, Samuel runs to Eli, and Eli again tells Samuel that he is not calling Samuel by name. When the call comes a third time and Samuel presents himself to Eli, Eli realizes what is happening. Samuel is being called by God. It is God who is speaking to Samuel, calling Samuel by name. Eli then instructs Samuel how to respond. Samuel is to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
The Lord calls again. With Eli’s help, with Eli naming the voice of God for Samuel, Samuel hears the voice of God, and Samuel finally responds. Samuel is able to hear the voice of the Lord because Eli tells him God is calling him. Eli is central to Samuel being able to hear, to Samuel being able to discern God calling him.
Let’s review the story again. Samuel has been set apart for the Lord’s service since birth. Samuel is in ministry regularly at the temple. He even sleeps at the temple. But, for whatever reason, no one has told Samuel that God might call him. No one has prepared Samuel for the voice that might call him into ministry, summoning him to play a key role in fulfilling God’s plan. When the Lord calls Samuel, Samuel believes it is a familiar voice – the voice of Eli. And Samuel is unable to hear the voice of the Lord until finally Eli realizes it is God who is calling Samuel and then encourages Samuel to both listen and respond.
No one was expecting to hear God’s voice. No one was expecting the voice of the Lord to come. Again, we are told in the first verse of this chapter that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Even the people lying in the temple were unable to hear the voice of God. Even the evidence of a miracle, the son of a barren woman who poured her heart out to God only to have God answer could not hear the voice of the Lord.
And while we might also believe that the voice of the Lord is rare today, God is still speaking. I spent four years working in seminary admissions, reading and hearing thousands upon thousands of stories about the ways in which God had spoken to someone – calling them away from politics and into ministry, away from a successful business and into ministry, away from teaching and into ministry, away from nursing and into ministry, away from law and into ministry, away from their original plans for life and into ministry. God’s call showed up in all kinds of places. God is still speaking, but we, too, have a hard time hearing the voice of God. And, we, too, often fail to enable others to hear the voice of God in their lives. God is calling all of us – some of us to heed God’s call and be set apart for ministry and others to help people respond to this call – to be Eli’s – individuals called to help others to be able to hear and respond to the ways in which God is speaking to them.
A few weeks ago, I had the joy of reconnecting with my childhood pastor. Charles Buck is the pastor who confirmed me when I was in the sixth grade. When he was here, he reminded me of a fascination I had with a bishop while attending the Bishop’s Confirmation Retreat as a twelve-year-old. I was so captivated that day by the Bishop’s leadership and abundant joy that I asked the bishop how much money he made. You see, I had been taught all my life that money was important, and I wanted to see if his salary fit in with the expectations that had been placed before me. While my call to ministry might have been started at that moment, no one really said anything to me.
While in college, I rarely went to church but I would occasionally visit the chapel from time to time on Sunday evenings. On two occasions, the college chaplain invited me to preach. I accepted her invitation both times and enjoyed it, but the chaplain never asked me if God was calling me to ministry. Everyone at college knew I was bound for a life in law and politics – that I had been set apart for something “great” – something that was certainly not ministry. No one ever asked me about considering seminary. No one ever asked me if God was speaking to me. I had gifts for ministry. Others saw these gifts. They invited me to use these. But no one ever said to me, “I think God is calling you to ministry.” No one was willing to get in the way of my plans in order to awaken me to God’s plans.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul says in the passage read earlier that Christ gave gifts to people so that they might be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Paul then says that these people were given gifts for a specific purpose. Paul writes that these individuals were given gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Certain individuals were given certain gifts for one reason – to equip others for ministry and to build up the body. Part of the reason Paul is begging the church at Ephesus to live the life worthy of the calling to which they have been called, “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is for the building up of the body – for the strengthening of the body. The body requires that all parts work together. And the body must continuously be strengthened. And our body, the church of Jesus Christ, is in need of individuals who can be equipped for the work of ministry and also equip others for this important task.
For some time, the Lewis Center at Wesley Seminary has been conducting research on the age of United Methodist clergy. In an extensive report, the Lewis Center shares that out of the 18,000 fully ordained individuals in our church, individuals we call elders, only 5% are under the age of 35. At the same time, 45% of our elders are over the age of 55. The church is facing a potential crisis of leadership. Half of our ministers will retire in the next 10 years and very few individuals are entering ministry at an age where they can give their life to the church – at an age where they can creatively and energetically and passionately devote their fresh eyes to the needs of the church, equipping saints for ministry. The church is in great need of gifted young people who are willing to offer their lives to the church – to building up the body.
Paul calls the church at Ephesus to work together to build up the body of Christ. Samuel is able to hear the voice of God but only through Eli who enables him to hear it. And so I have a few questions for us as a congregation.
Could God be calling us to point out the giftedness of others? Could God be asking us to not conclude that the voice of the Lord is rare but that the voice of the Lord is speaking to many people? Could God be inviting us to help others discover their vocation – their lives’ call – that place where they discover real and deep gladness intersecting with the world’s need? Perhaps we are called to look around our congregation – to examine the lives of people sitting in the pews with us – and to ask the question, “Who is God calling?” and “How can I help this person to see the ways in which God has gifted them, to see how God might be speaking to them?” I do not know of a single person who has been able to hear a call from God on their own. It takes a community of people to form a pastor.
Buechner asks, “What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint on canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses the spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.”
What is your thing?
What does the voice of the genuine say to you?
What is your vocation?
And who is God calling here in this place?
God is still speaking! The voice of the Lord can be heard often in these days.