A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on January 15, 2012.
The Second Sunday after Epiphany
I Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18; John 1:43-51; I Corinthians 6:12-20
At the age of 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pastor. He wrote that he felt the urge to enter the ministry as a high school student but doubts somewhat blocked the urge. Then the urge surfaced again with an inescapable drive. The call to ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural thing, he said. On the contrary, it was an inner urge calling him to serve humanity. It was the influence of his father that spoke to him about being a minister and the admiration for him that was the moving factor. His father gave him a noble example that he didn’t mind following.
King was influenced by the teachings of Thoreau and Gandhi on nonviolence. It was the theology of Paul Tillich and the ethics of Missourian Reinhold Niebuhr that shaped his inner world as someone who was ready to hear God’s call.
In the December following King’s move to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Rosa Parks, weary after a long day’s work and a lifetime of injustice, simply refused to follow the laws of segregation by surrendering her seat on the crowded bus to a white man. Her action crystallized resistance to discrimination in Montgomery. The women of the Black Baptist Churches in Montgomery called for a boycott of the city buses. Martin Luther King joined other pastors at a mass meeting to support the boycott.
According to Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters, the other black pastors in town were wary of the risks of leading this group but were too competitive to elect their rivals, so they chose the new kid in town, young Martin Luther King, Jr., for the dubious honor. Dr. King was like a sheep thrown to the wolves in their eyes and considered expendable by the older ministers.
How does God call? Look at the many different ways the voice of God came whispering in Martin’s ears: Through human experience, through the example of Christian parents, through education, through politics of culture and the church. All of those means still only were possible by the one thing Martin had to say in order to make them make sense. He still had to say, ‘Yes’ when God’s call came. But think about it … the prophetic voice that challenged how we were taught to think about civil rights began with a call. It was a call not unlike the call that Samuel heard while asleep next to the Ark of the Covenant.
The call of God comes in many and various ways to many and various people in the Bible, but when it comes it almost always comes as a surprise. Young or old, male or female, upright or downcast, devoted or detached, God calls all kinds in the stories of the Bible. Nobody is disqualified. Nobody is left out of God’s invitation to life and God’s call to ordinary, unexpecting persons is one of the truly surprising characteristics of God in Scripture. This possibility means you and it means me. It was so in the beginning and it has always been so.
The church may tell you can’t; your parents or friends may tell you can’t. But God may override them all and surprise you beyond anything you might dream or imagine for yourself! When God speaks, things happen and lives can be changed and to be people of faith, we have to stay open to let God act and do in the lives of those around us. We are left with no other option than to give thanks to God for doing so in our midst for when that happens, we are very close to the work of God.
The Torah commanded that the first-born child was to be presented to God and dedicated to God’s service. When Samuel was given to God by Hannah, his mother, she did so out of gratitude for the answer to her prayer in the bearing a child at such an advanced age. It was the Hebrew version (and divine correction) of the ancient Near Eastern practice of sacrificing the first-borns to the gods. That’s why when he was just two or three years old, Samuel moved in with Eli, the priest of God at the sanctuary in Shiloh which was the main sanctuary of God in the years before the Temple was built in Jerusalem. Samuel moved in with Eli and became an altar boy.
Samuel was just a little boy when God called him, and we are told at the time God woke him from his sleep he didn’t even know the Lord. His bed was next to the Ark of the Covenant that symbolized God’s abiding presence with the people when God called him.
Thus the story of Samuel presents us with unexplainable juxtapositions: Samuel does not yet know God but sleeps next to the mighty Ark of the Covenant. Samuel hears God, but does not know who was calling him. The contrast of knowing and not knowing makes this story something that all of us know. Our own lives are made of such contrasts: of confessing but not living, of the great contrasts between what is and what could be.
The text tells us: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” (I Samuel 3:1). It’s interesting to note how in the dark periods between the dramatic actions of God in history, God was present in the worship of God’s people. God continued to be present, so if the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread, it wasn’t because God wasn’t there, it wasn’t because God wasn’t speaking. Rather, it was because few were paying attention to what God had to say. We might be apt to say, “God hasn’t spoken in while” when it may be more accurate to admit we haven’t been listening to what God is trying to say to us.
How often do we mistake God’s calling for some other impulse? “Somebody ought to be doing something about feeding the poor,” we say, ignoring how our very awareness is planted by God to call us to be that certain “somebody” in question. We complain about the failure of our educational system and ignore that the schools belong to us, the community, and the church, and that perhaps our complaints are God’s invitation to step forward. Complaints about our world with no compassion are either a sign of moral blindness or apathetic dissociation. Compassion without action is nothing more than pity, and pitiful in response.
In truth, God calls us all. God calls us by the very gift of life and the gifts planted in us at birth or through those gifts honed through the unique blend of experience that shapes us. And God calls us all again through our rebirth in Christ. Jesus does not say, “Come to me and be saved.” He says, “Follow me, and I will make you something; I will give you a life.” Following Christ is not just a single moment of decision. It is a lifetime of daily choices and actions. But this daily word is precisely the call to which we are most deaf to hear.
We expect God to call in a different way, to call in a dramatic way. We expect bright lights or angels in white robes or cataclysmic events that bring an irresistible change of direction. Why should God need to resort to theatrics to get our attention? God calls in many ways, and even though we hear, we don’t hear it as God’s call. Sometimes God’s call is not just one event, but a combination of events through which God urges us in a particular direction.
A third time Eli wakened with the boy in his face. “Here I am!” Eli finally woke up to what was happening and told him, “Next time you hear a voice, talk to the Lord and ask the Lord what you’re supposed to do.”
As Carlyle Marney put it, “We must recover the priesthood of every believer or we can’t do anything at all. We must discover that we really are ‘priests to each other’ for every person who needs a priest at his (or her) elbow …”
One way we are priests to one another is in assisting the call. We have no right to dictate to others the specifics of what God demands they do (only they can identify their own calling), but we can urge one another to listen to the Voice, to see the signs they seem to be missing but are so obvious to us. The majority of God’s effort in human history is simply an attempt to get and hold our attention. But our attention is divided, isn’t it?
One little boy answered God’s call, and the whole world was changed. Through him the word of the Lord is heard and God-given visions guide the people of God once again. What might happen if we still the incessant chatter of our own voices and listen for God to call here and there from moment to moment in a world so hungry for a word and a vision today?
It’s no coincidence that Dr. King regularly took what he called a “Day of Silence” in order to pray, plan and listen. Listening was his lifeline and it was the critical part of his prophetic witness to the world. In reality, it was the genesis of his ministry of truth. A new national memorial has been installed that continues to speak in the silence of stone but a living memorial to King comes whenever we turn our ear to God so when God calls, we can answer, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
 Carlyle Marney, Priests to Each Other, Valley Forge PA: Judson Press, 1974, 9
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).