“A Rare Word”
I Samuel 3:1-20
January 15, 2012
My grandmother, who was quite deaf by the time she died, absolutely refused to get a hearing aid. She had a terrible time trying to carry on a conversation because she couldn’t hear. She also used to watch television with the volume so high I would have to leave the room before my head exploded. None of us, not her children nor her grandchildren, could convince her to even ask her doctor about a hearing aid. Why? Because over fifty years ago another doctor told her not to let anyone mess around with her ears. He said there was nothing that anyone could do to make her ears better and hear more. That was that.
She held onto that one bit of advice like a dog to a bone. Our arguments about how far medical technology had come and the advances in hearing aids and other devices were to no avail. So Gramma spent approximately the last forty years of her life asking people to repeat themselves and turning up the television. She couldn’t hear.
Thinking about hearing reminds me of a woman who I sat next to at a potluck years ago in New York state. She confessed to those of us sitting around her that she had just been fitted for a hearing aid. She confided in us that her hearing had been getting bad for a while but she had put off having her hearing tested because she was afraid. Afraid of the implications. Afraid she would have to wear a hearing aid. She was afraid of how that would make her feel – and look. And she was embarrassed. Embarrassed at not being able to hear, embarrassed at needing to wear a hearing aid in the first place. But when she finally went to the doctor and actually tried a hearing aid she was astounded at the difference. Suddenly she could hear all sorts of things. She told us that she started wondering what she’s possibly missed over the years because she couldn’t hear. She wondered if people had tried to talk to her about something and she had ignored them – not deliberately or intentionally, but because she couldn’t hear what they were trying to say. She confessed that she was no longer embarrassed at having to wear a hearing aid she was just embarrassed that she had waited so long to get one. The awkwardness of wearing one was trivial compared to being able to hear – really hear for the first time in a long time.
This conversation with this woman was enlightening. I wonder how sensitive and sympathetic I’ve been toward others who can’t hear. How will I feel at the possibility of having to wear a hearing aid? Will I be fearful and nervous and embarrassed? Will I live in fear like my grandmother or will I take the risk that woman took?
I also wondered about the other kinds of hearing disabilities out there. My grandmother did have a legitimate hearing problem, but she also had what my parents called selective hearing. Being a parent, I realize that this problem is not only for the elderly. A lot of times Gramma heard what she wanted to hear. She would miss most of the everyday conversation happening right around her, but if mom and dad were trying to talk privately about a situation or a problem with one of us kids or with someone else in the family, she’d call out, “What was that about Amy? What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
Probably all of us have selective hearing to a certain extent. What we want to hear comes through louder and clearer than whatever it is we don’t want to hear. I think this is a tendency of human nature. Our instinct may be to filter out what doesn’t sound as good or pleasant or happy or appealing.
There’s another aspect to hearing – listening. Listening is a different animal and it doesn’t come as naturally to some of us as hearing does. We hear a barrage, a cacophony of sounds everyday. We carry on conversations and go about our daily duties and work, but do we always listen to the people around us?
Into this hearing and listening comes Samuel. As an infant Samuel was dedicated to the Lord. A few years later he was brought to the temple to live as part of a promise made and kept by his mother Hannah. Samuel grew up in the temple. He learned from Eli and under Eli’s tutelage he served the Lord.
At the beginning of this story Samuel and Eli are both sleeping. Nothing unusual about that, it is nighttime. But then Samuel hears a voice calling his name. “Samuel. Samuel.”
Samuel thinks Eli is calling him. Who else could it be? So he gets up and runs to Eli. But it wasn’t Eli. Eli tells him to go back to bed. Three times Samuel hears the voice and three times he runs to Eli. Samuel hears the voice, but he doesn’t recognize the owner of the voice and he doesn’t know how to listen.
Samuel wasn’t prepared to recognize the voice of the Lord, because it was an unlikely voice to hear. The first verse of our passage tells us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. It took Eli’s perception to realize that the voice Samuel was hearing was actually the Lord’s. And it took Eli’s instruction before Samuel knew how to listen to God’s voice and respond.
We could have ended the story here. The option was there in the lectionary. But it really is just the beginning of the story. The actual message that the Lord had for Samuel was a harsh one to be delivered to Eli, Samuel’s spiritual mentor and teacher. As one commentator I listened to quipped, the message Samuel had to deliver was essentially, “Tell your boss he’s fired.” The message of the Lord to Eli was a message of judgment. The priesthood, which Eli and his sons were direct descendants of had become corrupt and fat with its own sense of power and authority. Eli himself was not corrupt but his sons were.
They had blasphemed against the Lord in word and in deed over and over again. Eli knew what his sons were up to, yet he did nothing to stop them. So Eli and his family, he and his sons together, would soon be shaken up and torn down in order to make way for a new beginning. For the priesthood and for Israel. Eli accepts this message with resignation and faith. He turned over any vested interest he had for himself, his sons, his family line and he rested them in God’s hands. His response was, “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.”
The message delivered to Samuel was probably not what either of them wanted to hear, but they did hear it. Samuel found the courage to tell it. Eli found the courage to hear it. He listened and he accepted the outcome, knowing that all things are ultimately in God’s hands.
The story goes on to say that as Samuel grew up, the Lord was continually with him. From this first experience with God’s call, all of Israel came to know Samuel as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. And trustworthy prophets were needed because the times they lived in were difficult and trying for this young nation.
At that time the Philistines were becoming more and more threatening. The priesthood was corrupt and exploitative and there was increasing pressure to name a king to lead them. This was something that was not part of God’s original blueprint for the chosen people.
So in those trying times, in those difficult days when the word of the Lord was a rare word – an unlikely voice – the unlikely ears of an unlikely candidate picked up on the sound. A young apprentice, too young to even recognize that it was God who called his name, heard that rare, unlikely voice.
So what is this story trying to tell us? Sometimes when that unlikely voice is heard it can be tough to discern. It is hard to distinguish between the voice of the Lord and all of the other voices and sounds and noises going on all around us, the general din so many of us live in and with.
We may not hear this voice directly. It comes to us through other human voices. It seems to me that one point the story makes is that our ability to listen is tied to our community. Just as Samuel needed Eli to help him recognize and respond to God’s call, we need others of faith to help us hear God’s word. We need this time of worship together, as a community, to hear God’s word, to recognize it, to act upon it. Samuel needed help and so do we. Our community is our hearing aid when it comes to recognizing the rare word that is God’s call.
This story also reminds us that that God’s word to us isn’t necessarily one we want to hear. I think I shouldn’t be too eager to catch that deep voice calling me in the night because sometimes the word from God is a word of judgment. It is a word that demands difficult choices, difficult response.
Certainly no one understood that better than the man whose birth, life and death we celebrate and honor tomorrow. It was 1955 and Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 years old when he answered the call to spearhead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The boycott lasted almost a full year and essentially served as the touchstone of the Civil Rights Movement. As I understand it, King was not absent from the Civil Rights discussion before that initial call. But I do know that he went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery hoping to serve God and God’s people and finish his doctorate. He wasn’t seeking fame. He wasn’t seeking recognition. I don’t know that he foresaw the events that would unfold. But when that rare word came, he understood it, he listened, and he answered in the context of a community who needed someone with the courage to respond.
I was too young to understand or even be aware of his assassination in Memphis in 1967. But I was an heir of the outcome of his life and work. Thanks to him and all of the women and men who walked beside him, I went to school with other children of almost every race and color and didn’t know until I was much older that there had ever been a time when that was different or forbidden.
King heard God’s voice speaking to him, calling him and he brought those words to our nation. But let’s be brutally honest here. Eli accepted the word of judgment that Samuel delivered against his family with more humility and grace than ever happened in the Civil Rights Movement. It is far too easy to paint a rosy picture of that time and of how beloved Dr. King was by the general populace. He wasn’t. He was one of the most hated men in America. I say this as one who grew up in and loves the South -- white America, in the South and around the country, did not go gently into the idea of civil rights for every American. And in the spirit of honesty, although that battle has advanced tremendously, it’s still being fought today on a variety of different fronts. But just as that rare word was perceived and heard and acted on by Dr. King and those who followed him, it’s still being heard and perceived in our midst as well.
That rare word of God was heard in a community of faith. And we recognize that rare word in our communities of faith as well. It is in community that we learn to discern God’s word, to hear and listen for that rare, that precious word. And it’s okay to admit that we all need a little help hearing. We all need the aid of others to hear and recognize and respond to God’s word for each of us.
So in this community, let us remember that we are each other’s hearing aids. Let us remember that we are here to support and console and love each other. And we are in this community to find and give each other the courage to hear and respond to that rare word. What are we being called to do? How is that rare word manifesting itself in our lives? In Shawnee? In this sanctuary? How can we help one another take the risk of hearing that rare word?
Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”