God Calls You: to See What Others Don’t I Samuel 3:1-10; Romans 12:1-8
Several years ago while participating in the Lewis Fellows Young Clergy Leadership program, our group of 30 pastors gathered in Atlanta, Georgia for 3 days of workshops. One afternoon, our discussion sessions suspended and we were all encouraged to walk from our downtown hotel to the historic district of the city known as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home. Because we were studying leadership, it was important, we were told to get to know the culture and surroundings which shaped the greatest American civil rights leader of all times. Those of us who had not been to this site were eager for the opportunity to visit and absorb as much as we could.
As we began to walk around MLK’s childhood home, it became apparent that one of the greatest influencers we learned upon Martin’s life was his father. Though raised in separate but not equal segregated Atlanta schools– his Martin Sr. was known to push his son to not become complacent in his studies or in his life.
One historian wrote: “Martin Luther King, Sr., quite often referred to simply as “Daddy King,” served as the first role model for young Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the principal influences in molding his personality. . . . He assisted in the organization of voter registration drives, participated in the NAACP, and sat on the board of Morehouse College. As pastor of the local church, he embedded strong religious ideals in his son and linked him to the church. The lectures from both King’s parents on the subject of racial harmony stuck with Martin and armed him against all forms of prejudice.”[i]
As the national park service guide concluded the tour, he summed up our experience in the home by saying, “If it wasn’t for Martin, Sr. paving the way– calling out academic and spiritual gifts in his son, we might not be standing here today talking about this man who did so much good for our country and the racial equality of all humankind.”
Similarly, today, our lection for this morning directs our attention to one of the greatest priest and prophets of all in time found in the Old Testament: Samuel, who would begin his life of service at a young age through an apprenticeship. Samuel, who would become a spiritual leader for turbulent times of transition in Israel’s life together– guiding and anointing the first two kings in the nation’s history.
But, as we know, we don’t just arrive in life without being under the influence of someone who teaches us. Who was the influence behind the spiritual upbringing of Samuel, like Martin Luther King Sr. was to his son? The answer arises in our lection for this morning.
In Samuel’s childhood, Eli served God in the temple as the head priest. Though not his father, Eli had been in relationship with Samuel from his toddler years. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who struggled to conceive, prayed hard for Samuel’s arrival. Eli was there to give Hannah a word of encouragement that God heard her prayers and one day she’d have a child. And, when Samuel was born and once weaned, Hannah dedicated Samuel to God in the temple for a life of service. Eli became his guardian.
Yet, while this story sounds beautiful from its beginning, it is important to note that all was not perfect. There were great problems in the land. Historically, since Moses and Joshua lead the nation of Israel to the Promise land, the people weren’t very good at listening or paying attention to God’s plans for their lives. The leadership system in place of judges did not receive wide-spread support from the people. The spiritual foundation in the land became increasingly far off-center of what God’s presence in their lives looked like.
Furthermore, in a culture were religious leaders passed from generation to generation, Eli’s biological sons were not up for the job. The son to son business of serving in the temple would stop with Eli. In fact, prophets had already showed up at Samuel’s doorstep foretelling the consequences of the sons’ corrupt behavior. Personally, I can imagine that Eli grieved the sadness of unmet expectations on part of his family– they were not the family he wanted them to be.
So with all of this true, it didn’t exactly seem like a moment in time when God would show up . . . when God would do something new… when God would bless.
Yet, if we know anything about our God we know that when we least expect is the very time that God does begin to move.
And, Eli emerges as the natural first choice. But, Eli, what? What was God thinking in picking him to begin this new movement in Israel’s history that would begin with the call of Samuel.
This is what we know: Eli probably thought his moment in time of doing anything significant with his life had passed. It was his time to retire– to kick back and enjoy life a little. And, physically, his health is failing. He’s going blind in fact. Look with me at verse two where we are told about Eli, “whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see.”
Again, let me reiterate that seems completely unlikely that Eli would be the one to SEE anything significant. He couldn’t see.
But, he does see. In the paradigm of how God works in the world– using the most unlikely of us for the most unlikely of tasks, God calls out Eli to use his gift of prophecy or discernment to SEE things for Samuel.
In our New Testament lesson for today, we heard the words of Paul that we’ve stuck close to all weekend if you’ve been around for our chili cook-off and special Bible study sessions this morning. We’ve learned that we all have spiritual gifts. And these gifts are meant not for ou r own good, but to build up the Body of Christ. And, most of all, we’ve learned that using our spiritual gifts is how we move in and through our corners of the world with SIGHT bigger than just what we know. Offering our gifts to God is how we worship the Lord with our daily lives.
If our gift is service, we will see things that need to be done and do it– we’ll see when the kitchen needs to be cleaned, the paper products to be refilled in the bathroom, the food collected here to be taken over to the food bank. And, we will do.
If our gift is mercy, we will see the hearts of the hurting and broken– offering a listening ear, a tissue, or simply being a presence.
If our gift is encouragement, we will see the bigger spiritual picture of individual and groups concerns– offering a word of motivation, placing a meaningful book in a person’s hands at just the right time, or offering to share a testimony in worship of where we see God at work in our lives.
If our gift is teaching, we will see the deeper truths in the texts of scripture and other literature that are meant to grow others in wisdom and knowledge– enjoying the research process of preparing to teach as much as the teaching and watching the joy come to folks eyes when they get a new understanding.
If our gift is giving, we will see how our momentary resources can be used for the good if managed well– being ok with less new things so that more funds can be directed to mission organizations, being ok with not getting credit for making donations, actually preferring it this way, and being blessed by seeing the fruits of their personal sacrifices bless the community at large.
If our gift is leadership, we will see the bigger picture of how to position just the right people in just the right places to bring transformative change in the administrative life of a community– being the one who steps up and says a word, being the one who coaches others to claim their callings too, being the one who inspires vision in practical ways.
And, if our gift is prophecy, we will see the possibilities of what God can do that may not seem clear in the present moment– using our voice to say yes to God’s leading and helping others do the same.
And such was Eli’s gift. When Samuel came to Eli twice in the middle of the night thinking that it was him who was calling his name, “Samuel, Samuel,” Eli redirects him back to bed. By the third time Samuel hears a voice calling his name and still comes to Eli thinking that Eli was trying to tell him something, Eli sees the situation clearly. It was the Lord doing the calling. And because this was true, it was Eli’s job to help Samuel recognize this and respond accordingly.
In verse 9, we hear Eli’s prophetic word: “Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord for your servant is listening.”
Though it might be easy to be critical of Eli– talking about his failings throughout his life and most certainly mentioning that he raised poorly behaved sons– I believe that in this moment in time Eli fulfilled God’s calling upon his life to see what others (aka Samuel) did not.
You see, with all the life-changing, spiritual game changing, Holy Spirit filled moments that Samuel would soon lead within the nation of Israel, it was Eli’s six words that helped this boy who had not yet known the Lord to SEE the Lord for the first time. Using his discernment gift, Eli became the influential person who help Samuel think about the inconceivable plans that God had already prepared for his life.
It might be easy at this juncture of the sermon to think that calling to use your spiritual gifts is just for professional Christians or “those important” people (whoever those people are). But need I remind you that God places a calling to use our gifts on ALL of our lives. No one who desires to be used by God is left without a gift. No one.
Over a year ago now after a series of sermons, Sunday School lessons and discussions in Church Council, we agreed as a church to begin a deacon ministry again. And, so we asked for names from all of you of folks you thought had the gifts to do this job full of the gifts of mercy, service and encouragement. And, with my list given to me by the Congregation Care team of who your recommendations were, I began to make some calls to several of you.
While a few said “yes” eagerly right away, most of those I called were quite shy. “Who me? No, I can’t be a deacon in this church?” (And you’d go to tell me the reasons why we shouldn’t pick you).
But then after some time had passed, several of you came back to me and said, “Well if you believe in me and congregation see these gifts in me, I think I need to give it a try to serve.”
And such an experience is not isolated to merely the deacon ministry. Countless times, I’ve seen the same situation played out in our community life together. Many of you have found yourself in positions of service, leadership or care that you never in a million years imagined you’d be. But, you’re the ones signing up now to be being the liturgist, leading one of our ministry teams, helping out in children’s Sunday School or serving in our hypothermia project because why? Someone used their gifts to encourage you to use yours.
This is the big picture my friends– God wants God’s body on earth to be blessed. God wants us to have every gift we need for the kingdom building that awaits us. And so God gave us each other. But, not just so we could bump shoulders and see someone sitting beside us in the pew. But, so that by using our calling– seeing God through OUR particular lens of giftedness– we help others see what they might never see if it weren’t for us.
I dare say if Martin Luther King, Jr. was not taught serious study of the things of God from his father, we would not know his name today or have freedom in all the corners of our land where it exists today. If Eli hadn’t told Samuel to go and respond to the Lord when God called, we wouldn’t have known King David and all that he would teach us about praising God’s name through song.
I dare say too that there are countless new stories ready to be written in our community if only we each use our gifts to help others see what they could not see without us recognizing it first.
In 2003, I attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC where seminary professor and social advocate, Tony Campolo spoke. It came time to give the offering for missions after the sermon. And, the gentleman guiding the program asked Tony to pray before the ushers came forward to receive the offering. Seemed like a very normal churchy thing to do.
However, to the shock of many, Tony refused to pray. “What?!?” we were all thinking in our seats. Instead he said something like this: “We don’t need to pray for the offering tonight because this is what I know about God. God has already given each us in this room enough resources to meet our $15,000 offering tonight. All we need to do now is to give. So, I’ll start by emptying my wallet with the cash in it and maybe some of you could do the same.”
And, just like Tony said that night, we got our $15,000 plus mission offering plus some in that very room.
Rest assured I’m not asking you to empty your wallets this morning . . . . though I am sure the trustees wouldn’t mind.
But, what I am saying, like Tony Campolo said about giving, is that in this church, just like other local communities of faith, God has given us every resource we need to do what we are called to accomplish. God has given us teachers. God has given us servers. God has given us encouragers. God has given us leaders. God has given us those who can show compassion. God has given us givers. God has given us prophets.
This question then just sits on our shoulders: are we going to all God to use our gifts so that others can be blessed through us? How are you going to make God known by seeing what others don’t?