By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
“Here I am, for you called me.”*
In today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we witness the calling of Samuel. The call story is a beautiful and moving account of vocational discernment.
First, though, a bit of background.**
Samuel’s father Elkanah (El-KAY-naa) had two wives: Peninnah (Pen-in-nah) and Hannah. While Peninnah bore him numerous children, Hannah struggled with infertility. Each year Elkanah would bring his family to Shiloh, so he might go to the temple and offer a sacrifice.
Afterwards, he would give portions of the sacrifice to Peninnah and her children, and then he would offer a double portion to Hannah. This generous gift was a symbol of how dearly he loved Hannah.
As you might imagine, this left Peninnah feeling threatened, and in turn, she would provoke Hannah. Year after year, this resulted in Hannah weeping and refusing to eat. Elkanah seemed oblivious to this tension, and the pain of Hannah’s infertility.
He once asked her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”*
One year, following the meal, Hannah was so deeply distressed that she presented herself before God in the temple. She wept and prayed silently for a child. She promised God that should she give birth, she would offer that child as one consecrated for service to God.
Eli, the temple leader, noticed Hannah’s mouth was moving without any sound coming out. Assuming she was drunk in the temple, he went to reprimand her, when he discovered she had been in prayer. Hannah poured her heart out to Eli, who in turn prayed for her. She left the temple feeling better. With time, Hannah became pregnant, and eventually gave birth to Samuel. After he was weaned, she brought him to Eli, to minister in the temple, while she went on to give birth to five more children.
When we meet Samuel in today’s lesson, he is asleep on the temple floor near dawn.
A voice cries out: “Samuel! Samuel!”*
Samuel assumes it must be Eli calling after him, so he runs to him and says:
“Here I am, for you called me.”*
Eli, who had been asleep, retorts: I didn’t call you, go back to sleep.
This happens twice more.
Eli begins to realize this may be God calling Samuel. He instructs Samuel to go lie down, and this time, to stay and respond: “Speak God, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel does as instructed.
And God responds by speaking to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.”
God then goes on to explain all that will befall Eli’s family.
Some background on Eli.** While Eli had once had the potential to be a strong leader, he had let his power, privilege, and position distract him from listening to God. Two of Eli’s sons served as priests in the temple, and their behavior was appalling. These scoundrels took the best portion of the sacrifices for themselves, while also mistreating and assaulting women who served outside the temple. Eli was aware of their behavior, yet he did nothing. He let abuse after abuse take place. While God had warned Eli to stop his sons, Eli’s love of power and privilege prevented him from taking God’s voice seriously. This is why throughout the first few chapters of 1 Samuel, Eli is described as having dimmed senses - both literally and metaphorically.
Samuel must have felt quite uneasy with the information God had given him. After all, Samuel had essentially grown up under Eli. The next morning, Eli insisted Samuel tell him everything God had said. While a bit reluctant, Samuel spoke the truth in love to Eli - soon his family would lose everything. Eli, in a way that is quite admirable, essentially responds by saying - May it be so. Samuel goes on to become a trustworthy prophet of God, whose ministry is focused on putting an end to corruption.
While Eli is a complicated and broken leader, there is good in him. Julian of Norwich once wrote, “...God is everything that is good, and the goodness that is in everything is God.”*** Eli’s family was corrupt, beyond repair. Yet even as Eli’s leadership was diminishing, the goodness within him accepted his fate, and selflessly helped this young boy hear and respond to God’s call. He helped Samuel listen. Eli did not manipulate Samuel, or misuse the information, or make it about him in any way.
Instead, he helped Samuel listen and accepted his own fate.
Given Samuel grew up in the unscrupulous environment cultivated by Eli’s sons, it turns out Samuel is uniquely poised to become a prophet who addresses corruption. Our experiences in life, particularly the hard ones, shape and form us. Again and again, God makes a way out of no way. The challenges and hardships we face, somehow become opportunities to serve God and one another.
Eli was imperfect, but he did this one good thing. While he was slow to realize it, once he suspected the voice belonged to God, he equipped Samuel with how to respond. He sharpened his listening, and guided Samuel on how to proceed.
Over the course of our lives we are blessed by the listening presence, wisdom, support, and companionship of family, friends, mentors, teachers, elders and little ones who teach us how to listen for the voice of God. These folks walk with us as we discern, and encourage us along the journey. They selflessly point us towards God, and the best versions of ourselves. These relationships are gems we can treasure our entire lives, because these relationships shape, form, and nurture us long after our relationship may endure, as people move away, change paths, or die.
Recently, one of my first mentors, Jane, died after a long illness. Mid-career, Jane left a successful law practice to serve as the Diocese of Maine’s Youth Missioner. For over 20 years, she helped teens and young adults discover, grow, and deepen their faith. As I look back, it really amazes me how many of the youth from that community discerned calls to ministry, particularly into helping professions. Some of us discerned calls to ordained ministry; others to music ministry. Some felt the tug of God to go engage in mission work. I’ll never forget sitting at a table with some young adults from this community, while one shared that they had just finished selling all of their worldly possessions as part of their preparation to go and live as a missionary in Asia. Many more discerned calls to be social workers, teachers, and work in non-profits or government agencies that are working for justice and mercy. Still more serve in leadership roles in their local churches as lay leaders.
Through regular youth events and gatherings, Jane cultivated a community where it was safe to be ourselves; where we could be painfully honest about what we thought of God and the Church; where we could be our messy, authentic selves. And Jane couldn’t have done that on her own. She had a knack for finding adults to volunteer at these events who enjoyed listening to teens and encouraging them in positive and healthy ways. Some were parents and grandparents, others youth group leaders, still others deacons and priests. We were empowered to lead liturgy, proclaim the gospel, offer sermons, administer the cup, sing boldly, and be leaders in the Church.
What started as a group of teenagers in Maine has grown into a diaspora of Episcopalians who are now adults serving in a variety of fashions across the globe. All because Jane, and the adults that worked alongside her, loved God deeply, and knew how to listen. They nurtured and supported us, as we navigated finding the words. They taught us to say, Here I am. Speak for your servant is listening.
As we continue to sit with the calling of Samuel this week, I would invite us to do some reflecting. Who has blessed our lives with their listening presence? With their wisdom, support, and companionship? What did we learn from them about ourselves? About God and God’s world? Who in our lives needs us to be a listening presence right now? To walk beside and encourage along the way? Might we engage in this holy listening together?
* Scripture reference from 1 Samuel 3:1-20
** Scripture references from this paragraph are drawn from 1 Samuel 1-2
*** Julian of Norwich in Revelations of Divine Love, ST 5, pg 9.
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