Reflection: A Wake-up Call
I think every parent has had the experience of being sound asleep in bed when a knock on the bedroom door comes or a hand tugs at your blankets and the words, “Mum? Dad? Are you awake?” pierce your peaceful slumber. Bleary-eyed, you struggle to open your eyes, grumbling, “I am now!” And the little voice pipes up, “I need a drink of water” or “I had a nightmare” or “I can’t sleep. Can I sleep with you?” And you either tell them to go back to bed, or get them a drink of water, or let them climb into bed with you and try to get back to sleep as a squirmy body with cold feet cuddles close.
But today’s story is a bit different, isn’t it? In today’s story, the child wakes believing he is needed, and gets up, walks down the hall or across the temple to where his elder and mentor sleeps, and when the old man struggles awake he says, “Here I am.” Samuel is awake and ready to offer whatever the old man needs. I’m not sure how much Eli appreciates this – he certainly didn’t call the boy! – so he tells him to go lie down and go back to sleep – like lots of adults might under that same situation.
The story is really quite comical, at least at first. Samuel goes back to bed, hears a voice, gets up again, goes back to Eli, and Eli sends him back to bed, again, and again. It could look like something from the Marx brothers or Charlie Chaplin, if you were to do it up as a silent movie. But eventually, the penny drops, and Eli realizes – aha, it’s God talking! After all, they’re sleeping in the most holy place in Israel, where the Ark of the Covenant rests. If God’s going to show up, this would be a logical place for it to happen! Eli sends Sam back to bed with instructions to speak directly to God this time.
That’s not even the slightest bit intimidating for a kid like Samuel, right? I wonder if he thought Eli was losing it a bit? But, Samuel does as he is told, and darn it all – the news is NOT good. It’s news, God says, “That will make everyone’s ears tingle!” Apparently, that’s not a good thing! You’d think if God was going to show up, there’d be good news to tell, right? We expect that! We wait for it!
But no, this is bad news – at least it’s bad news for the person Samuel knows best in the world: Eli. He’s been living with Eli since he was very small. He probably only saw his parents now and then when they came to make an offering or bring him a new robe or sandals. Eli was his father in the important ways. So he has to tell Eli that the old priest’s beloved sons and Eli himself, are heading for trouble, because of the sons’ disrespect for God and their priestly office. It’s sad, really: it’s not that Eli had done anything wrong himself. But it appears his parental indulgence had overcome his priestly responsibility and he had let his sons, who were SUPPOSED to be caring for God’s holy place, use their position to indulge their tastes for the best of everything, instead of serving of God. Perhaps you might think of some priests or preachers who fit that description today!
Poor Samuel, and poor Eli! Samuel has to share the bad news, and Eli has to accept that Samuel, this boy he’s raised from a toddler, has supplanted him as the prophet of the Most High God. That’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.
Have you ever felt like that – like some young upstart is coming in and telling you things you don’t want to hear? Changing what you’re used to? Messing with the way things are supposed to be? Telling you that you got something badly wrong and that there are going to be consequences of those mistakes? Even when it’s someone you love, it’s hard to take. I think of the intergenerational tensions I’ve seen over issues like climate change, human sexuality, First Nations issues, race, and gender roles – and the way younger people are pointing the finger at older people, crying, “You created this mess!”. Meanwhile older people say, “We didn’t know!” “ We didn’t understand!” Or “How do you know you’re right and we were wrong?” I know that this doesn’t always occur, but I do see it fairly often. Feeling supplanted and judged is not a comfortable feeling, even if the results are not quite as harsh as they will be for Eli and his sons.
And yet – Eli was able to say to Samuel: “Tell me it all. Don’t hold anything back.” And when he heard it, he said, “‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’ Eli didn’t try to downplay Samuel’s words, or forbid him to speak. In fact, he must have supported him, as Samuel became known far and wide as a prophet, and people came to Shiloh knowing that there they would encounter God’s presence, and hear God’s words.
Eli’s position is incredibly gracious and humble. He is obedient to what he understands to be God’s will, expressed by this young person who serves alongside him. He continues as priest for a while, but he knows that as John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must increase while I decrease”. Eventually Samuel will become chief priest and prophet to all of the Israelite tribes, anointing first Saul and then David as the first kings of the nation of Israel. He will have his own experiences of seeing decisions he has made go sour. He will be great, but not flawless – no leader of God’s people has ever been.
In the meantime, we’re left with the realisation that sometimes there is news we need to hear from God that will not be good news for everyone. Our tradition tells us that those who abuse their privileges, do not share from their abundance, exploit the weak or make money off the poverty of others, who profane what is holy and who hurt the vulnerable – that the news coming their way is not going to be good news. Even those of us whose privilege is indirectly built on the disempowerment of others will be called to account. That’s not good news – and yet, in a strange, upside-down way, it is!
It is, because we are so blessed to have a tradition that opens our eyes and holds us accountable for our actions and decisions. We are so blessed to have a community in which we can learn together to make better choices and help each other through that process. We are blessed to be a gathering of people in which alternative voices may be heard and alternative stories may be told. We are also blessed to be an intergenerational community that at its best can make room for the voices of the young, their different perspectives, ways of being and seeing in the world. We need those voices! It is not impossible to be a church made up of only one generation, but it’s not the church at its best or strongest.
I go back to that image of a parent fast asleep in their bed, when the young person comes along and wakes them up. The adult isn’t all that happy about it to start with – in fact they might be downright cranky! – but if they love that child they will find a way to address their needs – to listen for what is genuine and true in the child’s request. I go back to Samuel, who went to Eli’s bedside feeling called and wanting to help. It took a little while for Eli to realize that Samuel really was called, but when he did, he helped him hear God’s voice and find his new role among the people of God. They helped each other; they were honest with each other; they discerned God’s will together. This is the strength of the people of God: this people who are wealthy and poor and middle-class, old and young and in-between, wise and fun-loving and energetic and calm, passionate and peaceful and prophetic and pastoral.
The call of God comes to each of us, in different ways and at different times. Sometimes it feels like fantastic news, and sometimes it feels really difficult or even impossible. Many of the stories of the Bible make it seem as if the leaders, teachers and prophets of Israel are in it on their own – it’s just them and God. But as I think about the stories of the Bible, it’s intriguing to see how many of those famous figures we heard about had mentors and helpers, communities and disciples, challengers and supporters – individuals and groups around them who helped them hear and live out their unique calling from God.
The United Church has always affirmed, in the case of ministers, that we are called by God AND by the community. Our personal sense of calling is tested and either confirmed or questioned by the community in which we live out our faith. The same is true, at its best, for all of us. We listen, not only for our own calling from God, but for the ways God is calling others as well. Everyone here, no matter how old or how young, has a role to play in the family of God and in the world God loves. Our communities would be so much poorer without the Samuels and Elis, Lews and Kendalls, Ardens and Addisons, Ruths and Jennifers of this place. We pray that God will speak to each of one of us, and that we will listen for ourselves, and for each other, to strengthen the ministry of the whole family of God. Amen.