A story is told of a game warden out in Louisa County who got wind of a poacher who was illegally shooting deer out of season on his property way out in the boondocks by the river. The poacher had been up to this for some time, but no one had been able to catch him in the act. One morning the game warden finally decided to sneak up to the man’s property unawares, spy on him poaching, and arrest him.
Before dawn, he left his car out by the road, hiked deep into the woods, and quietly made his way into the thick brush just behind the poacher’s cabin. A few minutes went by in the still of that morning, and then he saw a light come on in the cabin. A few minutes later and the back door opened. The man stepped out into the cold air. He cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted out, “Hey, warden, you want to come in for a hot cup of coffee?” The warden was dumbfounded. He sat there for a second, but figuring his cover was blown and there would be no use in sitting out there in the cold for the rest of the day, he stood up from his hiding place and said, “Sure. Sounds good.”
The two men went into the cabin and sat down for coffee. After a few moments, the warden looked across the table and said, “I have just one question. How did you know I was out there this morning trying to spy on you?”
The poacher said, “I didn’t, but every morning I open my door and call for you, just in case you might be there.”
Every morning…every year…every moment…God’s call to follow and to serve comes to us and God awaits a response…just in case we might be listening. We may not hear it. More commonly, we may not recognize it. Even more likely, we may be paying attention to something else, preoccupied with ourselves and our own agendas, but God’s call is nevertheless issued, God’s Word is still sent forth with a persistent urgency and with a gracious frequency we could never expect.
I suppose that is the level on which many of us can relate to this story of the call of Samuel. The Word of the Lord, we are told, was actually rare in those days, but it certainly is prolific and patient with young Samuel! Before he has even known the LORD or begun to study his word, like any good temple assistant would, God issues a call not once, not twice, but four times—finally even coming to stand in the room with him—before Samuel rightly discerns how he is being called. And Samuel misinterprets the source of this summons each time. Instead of responding directly to the LORD, Samuel first runs to his mentor and guardian, Eli, the, blind, aging and—truth be told—ineffective priest, wondering what his master might need. After three of these missed calls, Eli finally figures out that it is the LORD who is calling the boy, and so he gives him the words with which Samuel will respond: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
The young Samuel had been left at the temple as a toddler by his mother, Hannah, as a fulfillment of the promise she made to God if God blessed her with a child. She had prayed day and night to conceive—Eli even accused her of drunkenness—and when she finally did give birth, she named the child Samuel: “I asked the LORD,” or more directly, “God hears.” And now as a boy, living under the charge of Eli, that boy’s life comes full circle: Samuel is the one who hears the LORD’s repeated requests.
I suspect if you were to speak to many women and men who are in priestly vocations, pastors or other rostered leaders who serve the church in ministries of Word and sacrament or word and service, you would find that many of them finally responded to a call after ignoring or misinterpreting it for some time. I know that is true of my own circumstance. Without going into too much detail, I can tell you that my years at college and afterward were spent running to various stand-in Elis as I wished someone could help me interpret my gifts in light of the strange, imperceptible longing most people have to serve or just be useful in this world. I am thankful that God was similarly patient and persistent with me as he was that night with Samuel as he lay in the temple of the LORD. And although I sometimes might wish it had all happened sooner, by and large I can give thanks that I learned something about myself, the world, and the LORD in the process.
But this hit-or-miss call-and-response is certainly not limited to pastors and priests. You need look no farther than your own lives and your own paths of discipleship in Jesus’ name to see the same. On the one hand it may seem that the word of the LORD has been rare, that God’s voice has too often seemed silent or unclear and ambiguous, yet nevertheless you continue to listen and learn and follow. You are here, for example, and in the midst of your lives you consistently discover many different ways to respond to God’s call and show forth faithfulness to the word of God that has found you.
Yes, the grace of God’s call is certainly one of the themes we celebrate as God’s people, especially as Lutherans. God calls all people into God’s service: all ages, all races, all nationalities, all educational levels…Tim Tebow fans and—blasphemy!—Tom Brady ones, too. This relentless grace is affirmed again and again not only in Scripture (look again at skeptical Nathaniel!) but in the lives of all the saints. Yay for us! We are called even in spite of ourselves!
However, if the only thing we note about God’s call to discipleship and service is its relentlessness, its gracious, repetitious invitation, then I fear we’d better watch out! If the only thing we choose emphasize about Jesus’ summons to hear the Word is its radical insistence and urgency to have us on board, then we’ve got another thing coming. In fact, that’s essentially what Jesus tells Nathaniel, who is bewildered and a little excited upon his call to ministry once Jesus locates him under the fig tree. “You have another thing coming, Nathaniel!” Jesus says as Nathaniel bursts out with his new-found confession of faith. That is, “You will see greater things than these.” And as the gospel plays out, he will. We will too, to be sure. Believe it or not, we will see much greater things than the unique ways in which we are being summoned to service to God’s kingdom.
Because as edifying as it is to find out that God has somehow spoken directly to each of us—in the words of Scripture, in the counsel and prayer of friends or mentors, for example—the point of Jesus’ kingdom is not about us and those unique calls. No matter how wonderful it is to discover that our set of gifts may align with a certain mission or missions, it is important to remember that we are not the primary emphasis of God’s vision. God’s primary focus and emphasis is Jesus…yes, that one from Nazareth. God does not call us so that we may be the focus of God’s ministry, but so that we may be involved in some way in what God’s word is doing in the world. God’s call is not only about hearing his word and discerning God has claimed us, but it is also about bearing that word…and bearing God’s word can be painful and uncomfortable and awkward.
|Samuel reading to Eli the judgments of God (Copley, 1780)|
That is precisely what Samuel discovers once he finally responds and reports to the right person that night in the temple. The set of words that Samuel must declare on God’s behalf is not a cheery, bright, pleasing pronouncement. In fact, Samuel must stand up the next morning and pronounce a harsh condemnation on Eli’s entire family. Scripture says that after Samuel heard God’s word, he lay there until morning. I bet he did! I imagine all kinds of things were racing through his head. I suspect he didn’t get a wink of sleep now that he was faced with the prospect of launching into a call that would begin with such conflict. How was he going to tell his own guardian and guide—the one who had raised him and that had now directed him to the LORD’s service—that God had told him their days were numbered?
For young Samuel, hearing God’s call and now bearing his word involved speaking truth to power. For him, that power was the corrupt priests in the family of Eli who had cheated and led astray hundreds of people. For some, that power might be the brokers of a financial system that empowers the wealthy and overlooks the needs of the poor. For others, those powers might be or the leaders of a system that discriminates based on race or ethnic group. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” for example, did not just make our ears tingle because of its inspiring rhetoric that motivated the masses. It spoke a profound truth to powers of prejudice and racial privilege in this country that was dangerous for those in authority and hard for some to hear.
But the powers to which the people of God bear the truth don’t need to be so grand-scale. For some of us, the powers of injustice could be the bullies in the school cafeteria or the peer group that pressures others into cheating or doing drugs. It could be the influences of a culture that idolizes sexual gratification and profits from the objectification of the body. Or it could be the powers of apathy that are startled when someone with vision and energy arrives on the scene.
When it comes to hearing God’s word and responding to the call, Dr. King and other servants knew what young Samuel had to learn so quickly that evening as he lay awake: that the call to service is just the beginning. In a sense, get over it and move on. We have another thing coming—indeed, the world has another thing coming! We have a word to bear to the world, as difficult to share and as out of touch as it may be.
Yet we cannot forget that the one who bids us to follow, the one who sustains us in this perilous journey, is also the one who showed not just with words but with his very life how to speak truth and compassion and justice to the powers of sin and death and decay. The one who did not let any of Samuel’s words “fall to the ground” is also the one who will lift up the Word made flesh so that the whole world will be drawn to him. It is the One who is there in Galilee, strolling along the roads extending the invitation to disciples skeptical and eager alike. It is the One who, in his suffering, opens his arm in forgiveness and love so that we may learn to embrace greater things than selfishness and our own desires. It is the One who there, rising from the tomb, walking right out into a world that is dead and deaf to the possibility of new life and wondrous new beginnings.
And he is here, speaking from the font and from the altar, speaking in the words of Scripture and the words of selfless friends…again and again he steps out into the cold morning of the world, cups his hands to his mouth and calls us in…
Come, my friend, and have a cup of coffee.
Come, my friend, and have a cup of wine and a bit of bread.
Come and see greater things.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.