How to Listen
Passage: 1 Samuel 3:1-18
Date: January 14, 2018
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
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What wakes you in the night? What are your fears? What voice do you hear that guides?
I cannot remember a time in my life when I was a sound sleeper. Around age eight, I remember waking at 3a.m. and noticing that the shadow in the bedroom window was the shape of a man’s head. I was afraid to move a muscle. I knew in my bones that the robber was standing very still, waiting until I fell asleep, when he would swoop in. My parents’ bedroom was right next door. Could I call my father to help me, without the man hearing me? “Daaaad. . .!” I called. No answer. “Daaaaaad!” Nothing. (Nothing wrong with my parents’ sleeping habits!) “DAAAD!” Finally, Dad came in, groggy but not grumpy. I told him about the man. Dad checked it for me, twice. Then he checked under my bed and in my closet. He checked the window one more time. Whew! After that, I finally fell asleep. Looking back on it, I understand that part of my fear at night was being alone. Nothing like 3 a.m. to feel that primal alone-in-the-dark terror.
Today’s passage from Hebrew Scripture is another story of a child and disturbed sleep. And it suggests that God’s call in our lives has two elements:our aloneness and our connectedness to others.
On this baptism Sunday, we celebrate a ritual that holds within it both our aloneness—our unique identity (as we are named in the baptism)—and our connection to one another through the body of Christ. Today, we will name Sophia and Katie. In their baptisms, we affirm that they are created in the image of God, beloved of God, and meant to become fullyand authentically themselves through their whole lives. We will pledge relationship with them as they grow.
Alone. Together. In baptism, we acknowledge that we belong not simply to ourselves, but alsoto God and to one another.
Today’s passage is about the boy Samuel who was repeatedly called by a voice in the night. In order to discern that the voice was God’s he needed his mentor, Eli. And elderly Eli, whose eyesight and health were waning in old age, needed young Samuel to hear the message.
This sermon comes with two disclaimers: first, the ancient world of Samuel and Eli did not have a concept of individualism in the sense that I am speaking today. So, the theme of alone/ together may be stretching a bit. But there is an interesting dynamic in this story, that Eli and Samuel needed one another to receive the message from God. And it was a difficult message. So difficult that Samuel was afraid to tell Eli. For Eli, the message was tough, because it was directed at his family: they would be punished for their failure in spiritual leadership. The punishment of God is a tough text to preach on, but remember that the context of this story was the state of things from which King David arose. This story was set early in the life of Israel.
This was a time of turmoil and transition. Moses and Joshua led Israel into Canaan, but things were far from settled. In fact, tribal wars threatened to tear the people apart. The promise to make things great again sounded hollow. Even in the promised land, things were far from perfect. Into the turmoil of history, and the fears of today, into the lonely hours of night, God calls.
Can we hear that call? We live in a loud world. Voices are shouting over Twitter, YouTube, and the news and social media. I saw a New Yorker cartoon that was a game show called “Facts Don’t Matter.” The host said, “I’m sorry Jeannie, your answer was correct, but Kevin shouted his incorrect answer over yours, so he gets the points.”
How do we discern God’s voice, God’s desire for us, in the clamor of the noise? Are we on our own on this? Or can we count on others?
Among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, this is how they greet one another:
“Did you sleep?”
“I slept well if you slept well.”
“How are you?”
“I am here if you are here.”
“I am here.”
This kind of community identity is hard for us to fathom, isn’t it?
I’ve been reading an excellent book by researcher Brene Brown called “Braving the Wilderness.” She notes that recent research on belonging showed that “participants reported feeling surrounded by‘us vs. them’ cultures that create feelings of spiritual disconnection. Over and over, participants talked about their concern that the only thing that binds us together now is shared fear and disdain, not common humanity, shared trust, respect or love. They reported feeling more and more afraid to disagree or debate with friends, colleagues, and family because of lack of civility and tolerance.” Just when we most need to feel our common humanity, we are dividing into like-minded factions, which actually make us more isolated.
Brown writes that true belonging happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world with our own self-acceptance. Even when we are utterly alone, we are connected to one another by something greater than group membership, politics, ideology. We are connected by love and the human spirit. No matter how separated we are by what we think and believe, we are part of the same spiritual story.
In baptism, we are committing ourselves to one another. When we come to be baptized, we claim to be part of the same story. When we pledge our support to the newly baptized, we promise to teach and love. The calling that God has is for all the nations: it’s the whole world. It’s California and Washington, D.C. It’s Puerto Rico and Haiti. It’s Russia and France, Canada and Germany, and the nations of Asia and Africa. God is calling us to love the world. And that love begins here, in the body of Christ.
The words voice and vocation have root in “call.” Each of us is called. I don’t mean in the narrow sense of a job, though we hope to work in ways that fit our gifts. We are called to be authentically ourselves. Because this world needs us! The world needs us to throw our whole selves into loving this world and one another.
What is God whispering to us? We are hearing God when we love ourselves, as God loves us: not for our grand accomplishments, or perfection, but for our flawed humanity and human heart. Then, we see our own imperfections. When we do this, our hearts become permeable and open. We hear God when we see the humanity in the other, across age, across race, across political party.
We hear God when we cultivate joy. Brown writes: “I know a lot of people who feel guilt and even shame about their own moments of joy. How can I play on this gorgeous beach with my family while there are people who have no home or safety? Why am I working so hard to decorate my son’s birthday cupcakes like cute little Despicable Me minions when there are so many Syrian children starving to death? What difference do these stupid cupcakes really make? They matter, because joy matters.”
Joy comes when we love ourselves and others, as God loves. This is the life we live into in our baptism.