The First Hebrew Scripture Lesson: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-181O LORD, you have searched me and known me.2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;you discern my thoughts from far away.3You search out my path and my lying down,and are acquainted with all my ways.4Even before a word is on my tongue,O LORD, you know it completely.5You hem me in, behind and before,and lay your hand upon me.6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;it is so high that I cannot attain it.13For it was you who formed my inward parts;you knit me together in my mother’s womb.14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.Wonderful are your works;that I know very well.15My frame was not hidden from you,when I was being made in secret,intricately woven in the depths of the earth.16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.In your book were writtenall the days that were formed for me,when none of them as yet existed.17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!How vast is the sum of them!18I try to count them — they are more than the sand;I come to the end — I am still with you.The Second Hebrew Scripture Lesson: 1 Samuel 3:1-201Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lordwas rare in those days; visions were not widespread.2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, waslying down in his room; 3
the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying
2down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called,“Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5
and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, foryou called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and laydown. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said,“Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie downagain.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had notyet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got upand went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that theLord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he callsyou, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and laydown in his place.10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” AndSamuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”Sermon:There was a time in my life where I placed a great deal of value on my ability to beinvisible. This is a standard issue adolescent coping, right? Just see if you can make itthrough the day without being noticed or commented upon in any way.Certainly it is a proven strategy for the young gay Southern Baptist teenager,navigating high school and the church with equal unease – always on the verge ofexposure.At the church, it was hopeless, because my dad was the pastor and I was, despite mybest efforts, a known person. As the pastor’s kid, you get used to having littleconversations with strangers who know you. It’s fine. But on more than one occasiona sweet older lady would say something like, “Oh were your ears tingling? Cause wewere just talking about you.”I know this was meant in a sweet way. But it did contribute to a certain sense ofparanoia, maybe just a fear of being accurately perceived, or if you go a layer deeper,known? Too much for a young queer kid who is pretty sure they found their way intoHell’s waiting room. How much longer until I was found out?There are a few moments from my childhood that I preserve now as icons of myspiritual journey. One of these memories is sneaking into the baptismal pool of theBaptist Church during worship services. Some of you are Baptist enough to knowwhat I’m talking about here – there is often a pool of water sort of built into the wallof the sanctuary. In this case it was elevated above the choir loft. And there’s a thin,
3horizontal pane of glass at the top which shows you about a foot of water, eventhough the pool itself is maybe four feet deep. So on the day of a baptism, the pool isfull and you can see people wade out into the water.Most services, though, the pool is empty. And the pastor’s son knows some things –like the location of the key that opens the door to the little room that leads into thepool. That’s how I occasionally left the worship service, as if going to the bathroom,headed to the office, retrieved the key, opened the door, and slithered into baptismalpool where if I laid on my back I could be in the room, behind the choir, completelyundetected.When I say that this memory has become an icon of my faith, it’s because it capturessome tensions that have remained present to some degree ever since. Present, buthidden. Laying calm but also under the water line that actually represents death in thebaptismal formulation. “Buried to sin, raised to newness of life,” my dad said athousand times. Would I rise or was this my forever home below the surface?
I hope you’ll forgive this personal story. It’s hard not to relate to Samuel, a little bit. Aboy who grew up in the church. The boy who was maybe most comfortable at nightwhen the lights were finally extinguished and the building grew quiet and thensuddenly, a voice. Our story opens with young Sammy asleep on the floor in theTemple, right next to the Ark of the Covenant.Now you might wonder, why is a kid sleeping there? His mother Hannah and fatherElkanah had struggled to conceive a child and so Hannah came to the Temple to pray.She fell on her knees before the altar, weeping.She had to walk right past the priest, Eli, on her way in. We’ll learn later that Eli is notgood at his job, but we get a little taste of it here, when he accuses Hannah of beingdrunk. He approaches her, in that terrible way we clergy sometimes do, and asks herto “put away her wine.”She keeps it civil, explaining that she is actually “pouring out her soul” - not her wine.She goes on to promise that if she is able to have a son, she will dedicate him to theservice of the Lord. Maybe Eli just wants to move her along but he says, “Go inpeace,” he says. “May the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”And, in fact, she does get pregnant very shortly after. She had a son and named himSamuel, which means ‘God has heard.’
4She remembers her promise and presents Samuel to the Temple and Eli agrees toraise him, and Hannah sings this song of praise, which is likely the inspiration forMary’s Magnificat:“My heart exults in the Lord,” she sang,“my strength is exalted in my God...”The Lord raises up the poor from the dust;he lifts the needy from the ash heap,and make them sit with princesand inherit a seat of honor.” (1 Samuel 1:1, 4, 8)So Samuel grew up inside the Temple. The next chapter completes the picture of Eliand his sons. They regularly stole the best portions of the sacrifice and ate them. Eli’ssons sexually assaulted several women right outside the Temple and their father didnothing to restrain them. And all the while, the baby Samuel became a child and hismother Hannah visits him regularly.I’m lingering on this backstory because the moment that we are focusing on today isoften framed as the story of a kid. And it is that.But it’s also the story of a sea change happening within organized religion, anunprecedented critique of the power of priests and kings. A little boy is named “GodHas Heard.” Hannah named him that because God heard her, of course. And yetGod Has Heard literally grew up in the sanctuary of a corrupt priest. Over the courseof his life, the meaning of that name will evolve.Three times he hears his name called out in the sanctuary. He’s not spooked – he justassumes, very reasonably that it’s Eli. The third time, though, Eli realizes what’s goingon.If the old priest has a redeeming moment, it’s right here. “If you hear that voiceagain,” he says, “say, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”That’s what Samuel does. And what he hears next is a mouthful.God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears ofanyone who hears of it tingle.” God goes on to say that Eli and his family are going tobe removed as priests and punished for their wickedness. And it is Samuel’s job todeliver that message. Are your ears tingling yet, Eli? We were just talking about you.
The boy lay there in dread until the morning.When the sun finally rises, he goes to Eli’s chambers and the old priest says, “Well,what did God say?” Samuel doesn’t want to tell him. The priest, once again to hiscredit, demands to hear the truth. So Samuel holds nothing back.“Well, it is the Lord,” said Eli, finally. “Let him do what seems good to him” (1Samuel 3:18). “And as Samuel grew up,” the narrator concludes, “the Lord was withhim, and let none of his words fall to the ground.”That’s how he became a prophet. In fact, he’s regarded as the first prophet to appearin Israelite history since Moses. He began traveling a circuit throughout all of Israel (1Samuel 7:16). He was a frequent and fierce critic of kings, showing up at theirdoorstep. Famously, he selected King David from a line-up of brothers and advisedhim for the rest of his career. In fact, Samuel becomes the embodiment of hismother’s song – a voice of justice and praise throughout the nation.
There’s a playfulness, I think, in a story about a boy named God Has Heard, learninghow to hear God, and how to respond.What does it mean to hear God, after all? And what does it mean for God to hear us?Just invoking these questions brings up a queasy fear from my childhood. That fear ofbeing perceived. That fear of hearing, and understanding, and then being ask to dosomething. No thank you. I’d rather stay in my hide-a-way inside the wall. Cozy,hidden, unaccountable.As I’ve aged I’ve come to better understand that there is no hiding from God becauseGod is everywhere. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? Ofcourse, depending on your state of mind, that’s good or bad news but that doesn’tmake it less true. “Bidden or unbidden,” says Carl Jung, “God is present.”Perhaps the work is less finding or evading God – but simply perceiving the Divine inour midst. Were your ears tingling? Maybe you should start paying closer attention.Personally, I find a subversive streak in Samuel’s calling story, because he is raised in acorrupt and broken religious institution by a corrupt and weary priest. And still Godspeaks. And still Samuel hears. And even more surprising, the corrupt and weary priestis actually still helpful.
6And then of course Samuel reads him for filth. But even that is a blessing of a sorts,as Eli is able to receive the prophecy and maybe adjust course or at least get a helmet.I’m no Samuel, but I was raised in a church that loved me and taught me how to loveGod, even as it was utterly unequipped to deal with my sexuality. I hid in the wall untilthe right time but what a silly form of rebellion, really, tucking yourself away into thebaptismal font until the time is right? You could do worse.A better example of Samuel, perhaps, is Dr. King. A child of the church, a child ofAmerica, our most famous and legitimate American prophet. He uttered a powerfuland prophetic witness while never really abandoning the institution, people, andcountry that he still somehow loved.Those are big shoes to invoke on the day we ordain our newest elders and deacons totheir new roles, right? Just be like Samuel! Just be like Martin Luther King!The good news, I think, is right here in the story. God comes to us. God calls us to bebrave. God surrounds us with other people, however imperfect, who will help usinterpret what we should do. It’s all that easy and it’s all that hard.Some of us have run, hidden, procrastinated. But God is still there. Still calling. Doyou feel your ears tingling?