Monday, January 19, 2015

Samuel's Calling

1 Samuel 3:1-20, Lectionary 2B, January 18, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
The call of Samuel is a beautiful piece of scripture. It is partially the inspiration for the hymn Here I Am, Lord. Ever since I translated this passage as a freshman in college, it  became my personal favorite, too. Why is this story so beloved?

One reason might be how idyllic the first ten verses are. Samuel hears God speaking directly to him, yet he doesn't realize it. The back and forth between Samuel and Eli is amusing. Then, Samuel says, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." What a powerful way for Samuel to present himself before the Lord.

Another reason why this passage might be so beloved is that we wish God's calling to be so straightforward. Don't you wish that God called you directly in a vision and told you specifically what to do and what to say? I certainly wish that God would be more direct.

When we read about saints and other important Christians throughout the centuries, sometimes we hear their call stories. Some of them had experienced God's direct call to specific ministry. Sometimes those calls happen at the beginning of their ministry, like Martin Luther deciding to become a monk after almost being hit by a lightning strike. Other times, a call story can happen in the middle of a solid ministry career. Take Mother Teresa, for example.

"MotherTeresa 094" by © 1986 Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 1986 /. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikimedia Commons -

Before she became Mother Teresa, she was Sister Agnes. She spent twenty years teaching in India. Although an honorable profession, teaching did not make her famous. Then, on September 10, 1946, she was on a train heading to Darjeeling in the Himalayas.

"On this day she received a 'call within a call.' God, she suddenly felt, wanted something more from her" 'He wanted me to be poor with the poor and to love him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.'" (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, p. 392) She went to Calcutta and formed the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa sacrificed modern convenience and a comfortable middle class life to serve the poor. She could do this because she had a vision from God telling her exactly what to do.

Internal callings, or direct personal experiences with God, are rarely potent in modern days. Although we certainly experience God in worship and in prayer. God rarely sends us visions with direct instructions. Sometimes, God comes to us not internally but externally. Take St. Ambrose, for example.

Bartolomeo Vivarini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ambrose of Milan was born in 339 not to a Christian but to a Roman family. He was not raised in the faith, nor did he have any interest in converting. Instead, he became the governor of a province in Italy where Milan was its capital. When the bishop of Milan died, the Christian community was a mess. 

The Catholic and Arian factions were at odds, claiming that the other was full of heresy. Arians denied the full divinity of Christ, and the Catholics affirmed that Christ was fully God and fully human. With such a controversy, they could not choose a new bishop from their ranks.

When these fights nearly broke out in violence, Ambrose went to the basilica to try to keep the peace. Then someone shouted, "Ambrose for bishop!" Because he was a pagan, Ambrose was shocked when the entire assembly cried out for him to be the next bishop.

"Ambrose was horrified. Not only was he a layman - he was not even baptized. Fleeing the basilica, he went into hiding to evade the importunate crowd. But when he was finally cornered, he acquiesced to what was evidently the will of God. So within a week he was baptized, was confirmed, received holy orders, and was consecrated bishop of Milan." (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, p. 533)

St. Ambrose did not know what he was walking into when he entered the basilica that day. Even so, he was willing to submit to the will of God when so many enraged Christians could unite under him. This external call for Ambrose was just as influential as an internal call may have been.

Ultimately, God comes to us in internal and external ways. In fact, this is a requirement before a student may enter seminary in the Lutheran Church. A candidate must have an internal call, like crying before an altar and feeling recommitted to Christ. A candidate must also have an external call, like a youth group electing a freshman to be chaplain of the group. 

I think it is important that our lesson this morning did not end at verse 10. The first ten verses may be an idyllic story of God calling a young boy to ministry, but reality hits in the next ten verses. God did not call Samuel to an easy task. He was not called to gently love everyone who already knew God's love. No. God called Samuel to share cold, hard truth with Eli. God told Samuel to tell his beloved mentor that Eli and his sons will be punished. 

You see, Eli may have done a good job raising Samuel, but he was a terrible father. His sons would hoard meat sacrifices for themselves and not share them with the hungry. They would have sex with women who came to the tent of meeting. Eli occasionally chided his sons, to no avail. Eli's sons abused their authority and sinned against the Lord.

So the Lord told Samuel that the Lord had had enough. The Lord will punish Eli's house, and no sacrifice can make a difference. This man that Samuel cared for would suffer because his sons were terrible people. This is a heavy burden for a young man to bear, especially as his first prophecy. "Doom and gloom" is never easy to share, yet for a boy to condemn his mentor? That is too much. So it is no wonder that Samuel hesitated to share this prophecy with Eli.

Yet, when Eli called Samuel to him, Samuel bravely shared all that the Lord had said. Eli did not hurt this messenger lad, but instead accepted his fate. This story that starts so idyllic ends up being a powerful story of the great challenges of ministry. Nobody ever said that life as a Christian would be easy. In fact the opposite is true. 

Let's look back at those call stories. First, Mother Teresa. She left her virtuous yet comfortable life to live among the poor and homeless. She did what she could to provide comfort for these people, including the most basic health care and feeding. She once said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, p. 393)

Indeed, even more important than the physical care that she provided was the way she treated everyone with respect. She valued people who never felt valued in society. In that way, she was God's love. Mother Teresa left her life teaching in a comfortable school so she could embody God's love for those who would not receive it elsewhere. This was no easy task.

And St. Ambrose. After he became bishop, he continued to keep the peace even as he studied the Bible. He gave away his property and opened his doors to all in need. He carefully served the church, personally overseeing all of his roles as bishop. He even baptized and mentored St. Augustine.

Once an imperial leader himself, now Ambrose protected the church from imperial overthrow. St. Ambrose gave up all of the prestige and power that he might have had as a Roman governor. Instead, he became a humble bishop who carefully watched over his flock.

Looking at Samuel, Mother Teresa, and Ambrose, we see how powerful calls to ministry can often be followed by difficult personal sacrifices and dangerous messages to share. These saints were called to ministries that shared God's love to the greatest and the least. Not one of these accepted the status quo. Instead, they created personal relationships as they became God's voice and hands in a challenging world. May we find ways to do the same. Amen.

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