1 Samuel 3:1-20, NRSV
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
4 Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.
6 And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
8 And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15 Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17 And Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”
19 And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord.
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This is a beautiful familiar story about Samuel’s introduction to a ministry so big it fills two books of Scripture. I’ve heard it many times, but as always, it was new with this reading. I’m sure that has something to do with the kids I care for during the week. I usually nanny for them four days a week, from school pick up until dinner or bedtime, but a couple of weeks ago I stayed overnight for the first time. That’s a whole other ball game. Those of you who are parents can just go ahead and laugh at me now. Bedtime went about as smoothly as usual, but at about 4:30am I was startled awake by a little voice at my door… “Elizabeth…” I am not a graceful riser, so I shot up and sort of flailed my way out of bed like, “What? What is it? Are you ok?!” until I really woke up enough to calmly deal with the bad dream and get everyone back to sleep.
I’d always thought of Eli as this very calm, collected mentor, but after that night I couldn’t help reading him like any other grown up woken up by a kid in the middle of the night. This was probably not the first time this happened, so of course he dismisses what he assumes is Samuel’s dream and sends him back to his room to try to squeeze in a few more hours of sleep before another long day in the Temple. By the second time Samuel comes knocking, maybe Eli starts reconsidering letting him listen to scary stories with his friends. Maybe Eli has a little more trouble getting back to sleep this time, thinking about everything he needs to get done the next day, all the people who will visit the Temple for worship, all the lessons he’ll give… When Samuel comes back a third time then, maybe he’s had a little time to lie awake and let the fog clear. He is thinking like a lucid human being at this point so he has time to remember who he is and what they’re here for. It’s God’s house after all, and God is persistent and patient. Could this be God calling to the boy? Could God finally be speaking again after such a long silence? Could Samuel finally be receiving a call as a prophet in his own right? When Eli sends Samuel back to his room with new instructions, I wonder if he was able to even think about falling back asleep. I think I would have been tempted to sneak up to Samuel’s room and press my ear against the door, hoping to catch a snippet of the voice of God.
A conversation with God is a big deal for anyone, but Eli had reason to be especially apprehensive about God’s revelation. Eli knew about God’s prophesies against him and his house. He knew his was guilty and living on borrowed time before God would punish his sons for their blasphemy. Eli knew—well, everyone in the area knew— that his two sons were abusing their power as priests, stealing whatever they liked from the sacrifices the people offered to the LORD and taking advantage of the women of the temple. Eli had confronted them about it but hadn’t stopped them, and God had sent a prophet to warn him that God’s judgment was on its way. Whether he listened at the door or not, I feel sure Eli suspected that God’s message to Samuel had at least a little something to do with that.
Eli gives Samuel an invaluable gift. He likely knows at least part of what is coming. He suspects that God’s message included some bad news for him and his family. But this was the Word of God, and God had spoken it to Samuel for Samuel to share with others. Eli seems a little harsh with Samuel when he demands to know what God said, but this is a defining moment. He’s teaching Samuel not to be afraid of God’s message, and not to be afraid of his own voice. He is teaching Samuel to tell the truth and to follow God’s instructions no matter what. He is teaching Samuel to be brave.
From then on, “Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.” From that first conversation with Eli, Samuel learns not to edit God. And the people learn that Samuel can be trusted because he doesn’t only share the warm fuzzy stuff. He speaks the truth even when he would rather not, even when it makes him uncomfortable. He is a true prophet.
This scene reminds me of a song I love by The Red Thangs called Commonwealth. The lyrics go like this, “Not everyone hears me when I speak, not everyone’s ears are expected to reach. For all of these years I’ve ignored the call, but now I’m here and I’m here to talk.” Speaking the truth is not always about how it will be received. Sometimes it’s just about getting it off your chest, because carrying it around alone is just too much. Another prophet, Jeremiah, put it this way, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot.” It is of course important to be sensitive to your audience. There’s no reason to be purposefully hurtful or inflammatory toward someone. But we can be respectful without sugarcoating; we can “speak the truth in love.” When you’ve got something important to say, don’t let the fear of what others will do with it keep you silent. Don’t ignore the call.
With that said, it is a whole lot easier to share something big with someone you trust to take it well. When Samuel first hears God calling, his first instinct is to run to Eli and say, “Listen, I have this experience, I have this calling, I have this identity, and I’m not sure what to do with it. Can you help me make sense of it?” He has someone he trusts to talk to about anything, and that is so important in moments like this. But that kind of relationship doesn’t just appear, it has to be nurtured day by day, conversation by conversation. It’s a pattern that develops over time as we open our ears and our hearts and our minds to someone to talk about everything from how their day was to how to handle a life-changing decision.
Let’s take a lesson from Eli in how to do this then. When someone comes to you to share something, do your best to be a good listener. Respect how hard it is to use your own voice. Remember how scary it can be to share something with another person, especially if it’s something that’s likely to make them angry or frightened or annoyed. Remember that saying it anyway is an invitation to work through it together. It’s a confirmation that this person believes your relationship is strong enough and important enough to handle the confrontation they’re unleashing with their words. It’s an affirmation that you are significant enough and loved enough to know the truth, to know who this person really is and what’s really going on with them. Their voice is a gift that they are sharing with you. Give them the gift of making sure your ears can reach the message they’ve come to share.
We can practice this by stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone. We can consciously seek out conversations with those whose stories we don’t understand or think we know so well we haven’t really stopped and listened to the specifics. We can give people the chance to define themselves when we think we already know them from what we’ve heard secondhand. We can listen to the details of stories we think we’ve heard a thousand times. We can adopt a position of humility, pretending that this our first encounter with this story, because the truth is, it is. However similar, no two stories are exactly the same because no two people are. God created us as individuals within the community of humanity. Listen, then as you would want someone to listen to you, without labels and presuppositions. Listen as you would want someone to listen to your child or your dearest friend. Listen as you would listen to Jesus, the Messiah who came with a familiar story of redemption that hinged on the unexpected twists—a Lion who conquered by becoming a Lamb, a Savior who conquered death by dying.
“The word of the LORD was rare,” which made it especially precious. Of course, Eli is so eager to hear what Samuel has to say—he doesn’t know if or when he’ll have another chance. Lord only knows how long it’s been since the last word. In our conversations with others today we may not necessary anticipate hearing about their recent one-on-one chat with the Divine, but when someone lets you in and shares those things that are closest to their hearts, those moments are precious too. I think of them as butterfly moments. Have you ever been out hiking or spending the day at the park when a butterfly comes out of nowhere and lands on your arm or your chair? It sits there impossibly close to you and slowly opens and closes its beautiful wings. In those moments you almost try to hold your breath so you don’t startle it, because this is not something you can plan or duplicate. It’s something you just have to experience when it comes. When someone lets me into their world, I feel the same way. Honored and excited and a bit terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing and losing the butterfly. This is how it felt when a friend came out to me as gay and shared her worries that she wouldn’t be allowed to pursue her calling as a minister when she shared this with the ordination committee. This is how it felt when my great uncle pulled me aside after the movie The Help came out because he needed someone to listen as he attempted to sort out his memories of a childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, living with Black folks who took care of him and loved and nurtured him, folks who became beloved members of the family in his eyes, but who didn’t have the same rights he did because of their skin color. This is how it felt when a kid who had been particularly disruptive for weeks during the anger management classes I taught at her middle school finally shared that she was petrified of becoming like her father whose anger landed him in prison where he would write her sappy letters about how much he loved her despite his behavior. She shared that the anger was always there right under the surface because she knew her life wasn’t fair, and she didn’t want to end up like this man she loved and hated so much. It knocked the wind out of me, this raw honesty. It was a gift, and I was petrified of spooking the butterfly.
I don’t remember exactly what I said in response to any of these things, but I don’t know that that’s really what’s important. Maya Angelou famously said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” We know at least a portion of what Eli said in response to this new word from God, but most importantly we know that with his words and his actions Eli made Samuel feel safe. He continued to care for this child no matter what message he brought, and he helped him grow into the person God had created him to be. He let Samuel know he could be honest with him, telling him it was safe to speak, for Eli was listening.
As we move into this week, let’s listen like Eli.
Open your hearts and minds and ears to those who are brave enough to speak.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.