1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Hush! Somebody’s calling my name. Oh my Lord—Oh my Lord! What shall I do?
The theme of today’s readings is the Call – that knowing that God is beckoning you forward for something special. We see it in both the Gospel and in the Old Testament reading.
The call of Samuel is an important story to me, as you might imagine. In seminary I wrote one of my major papers on this very passage. And there’s a good story about that.
I conducted most of my research in the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library. This is a highly- prized special collection, and you are not allowed to even have a writing utensil in your hand while you are in the room. There was one particular book that was quite useful for my work, so I took my laptop and transcribed long passages on one cold afternoon. Soon my laptop battery was depleted, and I found that I forgot to bring a cord with me to recharge. I went to the desk to turn in the book, explaining that I would have to return another day.
The librarian said they would be glad to hold the book for me, and gave me a reserve slip and pen. She told me to put down my last name, and that I only needed to include my first name if my family name was a very common one. “Well, my last name is Smith, so I guess you’ll need my first name too,” I said. And she replied, “Oh no, I was thinking of Cohen or Stein – I’m sure you’ll be the only Smith.” Context is everything, isn’t it?
Samuel’s call is an important tale in the story of God’s chosen people – it signals a change from the period of the Judges to the Monarchy.
Right at the beginning of the passage we hear that, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days – visions were not widespread.” This establishes that Israel is off track – God has not been speaking to the people as he once had. This introduction also indicates to us just how special and rare is the story we are about to hear.
We learn in the first two chapters of the book (before this passage) that Samuel is the child of Hannah and Elkanah. Hannah had no children and desperately wanted them. She promised God that, if a son was born, she would give him to the service of the Lord. Samuel is born, and we told that after he was weaned—probably at about the age of 3–he was brought to the priest Eli to be in service.
We are told of Eli that his eyesight had begun to grow dim. This is reference not so much to his age, as to his blindness to the evil of his sons. Eli’s sons are called scoundrels, as they have abused the privileges of being priests of the Lord. And an oracle, or soothsayer tells Eli that the Lord will take away the favor he has given to his family if they do not repent – but Eli does nothing. And the oracle predicts that another priest will be raised up, one who will be faithful. And with that, the stage is set for Samuel’s call.
The story begins with Samuel sleeping in the temple of the Lord. It is or course ironic that Samuel is in the presence of the Lord, but does not know that God is calling. Three times he calls: Samuel! This pattern of repetition is a literary device. It heightens the tension, and also shows that the call is unexpected.
There is some debate among scholars about the literary form of this story. It does not follow the distinct form of a call narrative. Rather, it is a dream theophany – that is, the appearance of God in a dream. In both Biblical literature and other literature of this time and part of the world, it is understood that dreams are communications from another realm. In this literature, these communications come in two forms – symbolic dreams and auditory message dreams. Examples of symbolic dreams are found in Genesis: Jacob’s dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending, or all the dreams that Joseph interprets.
But Robert Karl Gnuse, the scholar who wrote that book that was the primary source for my seminary paper, tells us that in auditory message dreams, “the deity comes and delivers a particular spoken message to the dreamer.”
In the tradition of these ancient Near Eastern cultures,
“[d]reams could be induced by individuals who went to shrines in hope of receiving divine affirmation or directions for important decisions in life….The earliest examples come from Mesopotamia…. Here the practice would be for the priest to go to the sanctuary, sacrifice, pray, and sleep in the [shrine] of the god from whom he desired the dream. This might occur while sleeping at the base of the statue of the god. The dreamer would hear the divine message and glimpse a vision of the god.” [i]
Does that sound familiar? Samuel sleeps in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of the covenant sits. While it would have been conventional to retell the story in a call form more familiar in Biblical literature, this story must have been passed down in oral tradition in this dream narrative form, and so was written down in that form as well. This reminds us of the interconnectedness of various cultures and traditions, and of the importance of form to the elements of a story.
Samuel is called three times. He goes to Eli each time, and Eli says he didn’t call him. Finally, after the third time, Eli realizes it must be the Lord calling, and he tells Samuel what his reply should be – “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
And the Lord’s reply is notable – “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” TINGLE. That’s odd, don’t you think? What have you heard that has made your ears tingle? Maybe particularly good news, or bad news – or unexpected news?
What makes this news so tingly is that it is a sign of a sea change for Israel – this is clearly not business as usual.
My call to the priesthood was sort of a tingly moment for me. But even more so was that time at about the age of 21 when I really questioned God about why I had been created as a gay person. I clearly heard God’s assurance that I am beloved just as I am – that I am God’s beautiful creation. I have never felt God’s presence more than I did in that moment. And that moment set me up for the rest of my life. There’s no question about it – it was a sea change for me!
Donna Schaper, the Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church (on Washington Square), says, “What this passage recommends to us is that we begin to make decisions based on the tingle of hope.”[ii] What might that mean for you? – The tingle of hope. Perhaps this is about acting on faith, believing that God will watch out for us. Knowing that, as we discern God’s call, and act on it, God will be with us. But that’s easier said than done, right?
Schaper goes on to note that this reference is plural: both ears will tingle. Because she hates “sermons that make us have to be more heroic than we really are,” she suggests that we might have one ear tingle with hope, and the other tingle with fear. It is OK to be scared as we step out in hope. As we dare to take a chance.
This is a time to take chances here at St. Paul’s. As you know, I was just named rector of this parish, and so we are starting a new chapter. We have an opportunity to take chances. And we should expect God to make our ears tingle with possibilities.
In a few weeks (on February 18, to be exact), we will hold our Annual Meeting—sort of the State of the Union for St. Paul’s Church. And so, I want to give you an assignment: As we start anew, I ask you all to pray. To listen for God’s call to this community.
We have also begun printing the collect for the week in the insert, and sending it to you in our weekly email. Please pray it. And use it as a tool to listen for God’s call. And then (and this is probably the hardest part), let’s all share the ways that God is calling each of us individually and all of us together.
As we listen to one another, we will think about whether that call makes an ear tingle with hope – and perhaps, if the other ear tingles with fear, then we will know that it is truly God calling us.
Hush! Somebody’s calling my name. Oh my Lord—Oh my Lord! What shall I do?
[i] Gnuse, Robert Karl. The Dream Theophany of Samuel: Its Structure in Relation to Ancient Near Eastern Dreams and Its Theological Significance. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984, p. 19.
[ii] Schaper, Donna. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 244.