Rev. Danielle K Bartz June 11, 2023
1 Samuel 3:1-10, 19-4:1a “Listening for the Sound of the Genuine”
Howard Thurman, mid-20th century African American theologian and writer said this: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
I love that phrase: “sound of the genuine.” I understand it to mean the sound of God’s voice that speaks within each of us. Many of the great prophets and leaders of our world, both ancient and modern, reference that voice when they talk about their motivation or conviction for the actions they take or compel upon others. Religious leaders, myself included, often suggest that you listen for the voice of God speaking to you when you are on the brink of a decision. I truly believe that God speaks to all of us – clergy and laity, doubters and believers – constantly. I believe in God’s still speaking voice and have trusted that voice to guide me throughout my life, as I hope you all have. Listening to God’s voice as a way of guiding our actions is a beautiful thing. As Christians we understand that we ought to always listen. But the truth is, it is so easy to say all of that. It is much, much harder to actually filter out all of the noise and listen for God. Harder still to understand what it is God is trying to tell us.
That is why I love the story of Samuel so much. Of all the stories in the Bible that describe God talking to one of God’s people, Samuel is one that I can actually relate to. I have never heard God speaking through a burning bush, or through the voice of an angel standing at the foot of my bed. I did not see the heavens open above me and hear God’s voice when I was baptized. I have never been struck blind on the road or received visions of the New Heaven and the New Earth. No, my experience with God is much more like Samuel. An incessant voice that I didn’t recognize at first, not leaving me alone, until someone in my life helped me to understand what was happening and gave me the guidance I needed to listen and respond.
Samuel enters into the narrative when Israel and its people were in great turmoil. They had reached the promised land, yes, but they had lost their way and were divided amongst themselves. Their great leaders – Moses and Joshua – were dead, and the tribal leaders were feuding and fighting amongst themselves. As our scripture says, God’s voice had been silent for a long time, meaning that the people were no longer being guided by what God wanted for them, but rather by what was right in their own eyes and for themselves.
Into this divided and troublesome time, Samuel was born. His mother, Hannah, had been unable to conceive but prayed to God for a child. When Samuel was born, Hannah praised God with a glorious song that Mary echoes when she learns she will bear the Christ child. Hannah was so grateful to God for Samuel that, once he was weaned, she dedicated him to a life of service to God in the temple, under the apprenticeship of Eli, a priest. Eli, whose own sons were also priests but were scoundrels only interested in amassing their own power, was glad to take on the care of the boy, especially as he was aging. Samuel assisted Eli in the temple, helping with the rituals. The scripture says that Samuel was deeply involved in the religious life of the people, but that he did not yet ‘know God.’ But one night, while he slept near the room where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, he was woken up by a voice calling for him.
This is where the story becomes so familiar to me. Samuel keeps hearing God’s voice, we as the reader know what is happening. But Samuel has no idea. He keeps assuming it is old Eli calling for him. And Eli, assuming that Samuel is dreaming, keeps sending him back to bed. Over and over this happens – God calls to Samuel, Samuel doesn’t recognize that the voice is God’s, and Eli tries to get the poor kid to just go back to sleep. While I have never heard a crystal-clear voice in my head that turned out to be God, God has tried several times to get my attention. But rather than understanding or even being willing to admit that it was God, I would just run around, trying to find an answer somewhere else. For example, I was convinced I did not want to go into congregational ministry. I told anyone and everyone that I would never serve a church, that I would instead spend my life serving the wider church in other ways. I was adamant. But, God kept nagging me and I kept running around, convinced that it either wasn’t God or that God was confused because I knew better. And just as Samuel needed Eli to understand what was happening and help Samuel to know how to respond to God, I am so grateful for the various Eli’s in my life who helped me do the same. Because I have never been happier or more certain of God’s call on my life as I am serving this congregation. And I know that, for now anyway, God wants me to serve God by serving the people of the church and the community. But I didn’t understand that voice for years. And while Samuel’s story is told from the perspective of just one extraordinary night, I think we all know that it is often a longer process. But the good news is that God never gives up on calling on us.
Which is why I think we all love the hymn ‘Here I Am, Lord.’ There is something so satisfying about singing a yes to that call, even if we haven’t quite been able to respond to God’s call in our own lives yet. Singing the hymn, singing ‘here I am,’ is responding to God’s voice even if we are not quite ready to respond with our lives. Or, if we have had the good fortune of responding to that call upon ourselves, it is a reminder of it, an opportunity to say it again and to feel the sense of completeness when we do.
I want to be clear about something though. When I talk about God’s call upon our lives I am not necessarily talking about career. Yes, for some, their career is their call. But for most, a career is a person’s livelihood, and God’s call upon their life is their passion. That thing that gets them excited. It can be anything, anything that gives you a sense of fulfillment, of knowing that you are doing what God wants you to do and has given you the gifts for. It doesn’t mean we are perfect at it, but it does mean that even the failures feel like blessings because we are responding to that call, even in our own imperfect ways. And when we use that call upon our lives to serve in some way, to serve our neighbors and strangers, our planet, our faith, our children – when your “Here I Am, Lord” is both personal and community fulfillment, then I promise you – nothing feels more right.
I was so happy when “Here I Am, Lord” was easily chosen as a favorite hymn amongst this congregation. That tells me that many, if not most, of you have a sense that God is calling upon your lives in some way. Some of you may have understood that voice already – either because you recognized it yourself, or like me, were lucky enough to have an Eli, or two, in your life to help you. And for some of you, that voice is still being worked out. If that is the case, I hope you are able to listen to the Eli’s around you. And never forget, all of us at one point or another may be an Eli to someone in our lives – which is a sacred calling in its own right.
In the meantime, we will keep singing our response to that call, even if we are not quite ready to mean it. But, much like Paul Newman said in the movie ‘The Verdict’ – “Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given to you in.” Put another way, “fake it ‘till you make it.” Because if all you can do right now is sing “Here I Am, Lord”, those words will begin to work on you. And soon you will be ready to say it for yourself. There is indeed, like Howard Thurman said, something in everyone one of us that waits and listens for the voice of the genuine, the voice of God. And God eagerly awaits our response and will not give up on calling until we do. Amen.
Still-speaking God, you call out to us in every season of our lives, urging us to listen, respond, and to feel the sense of fulfillment and peace you give when we do. For your persistent voice in our lives and in the lives of all your people, we give you great thanks. And it is in that gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
There are times, God, when we confess we have felt your voice stirring our Spirits, but were unwilling to listen. And while we are sure that you will never give up on us, we ask that you also send to us an Eli, someone who can help us to trust in your voice and respond. In the same way, whenever we are called to be an Eli for someone else, give us the courage, the clarity, and the grace to help that person be who they are meant to be.
We know that one of the best ways to listen for your voice is through prayer. So now in this silence we open ourselves to you, eagerly listening for what you want us to hear…
Good and great God, your calls upon our lives are as varied as the entirety of your creation, and that is a truly beautiful thing. So we pray all of this with grateful hearts in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher and guide. And now we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…