“Speak!” In the musical, “Rent,” the young artists living a Bohemian existence in 1990s lower Manhattan screen their calls with a message saying just that. The mystified parents trying to reach them sing their frustration into a machine. They are a source of amusement or horror, those parents, to the characters who really matter, the ones who don’t want to hear what they have to say.
I never thought I would be one of those people. I used to leap up and run to the phone as soon as it started ringing. But we’ve been screening calls at my house ever since I was a new pastor, and someone in the family misunderstood a message from a church member. It didn’t get ugly, exactly, but feelings were hurt, and the simplest solution seemed to be for no one other than me to answer the phone.
Now no one else remembers how to answer a phone anymore.
And we don’t get that many calls on the landline. It’s usually my children’s father, calling to say he’s in the driveway waiting to take Lucy to school, or Rachel from Cardholder Services assuring me that there are no problems with my current credit card accounts.
With Caller ID on my cell phone, I rarely pick up a call without knowing who is on the other end.
And all this has me wondering, do we screen God’s calls?
Would we pick up the phone for God’s unknown or private number?
And even if we did, would we recognize God’s voice?
We can be pretty far away from God, out of touch, disconnected. We can be distracted by all the other noise in the world, the flash of pixels on a computer screen, the high-def football game that looks so three-dimensional you almost feel you could step into it.
Or we can just mis-hear.
Samuel was a young boy, an apprentice of sorts at the Temple. The ten verses we heard this morning are a snippet of his long life story. His mother, Hannah, suffered over not being able to have a child, and when she did have one, finally, she dedicated his life to God’s service. In other words, she sent him to live in the Temple, where priests were always in residence, to be a helper in whatever way they could use him.
“The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (1 Samuel 3:1a, NRSV)
This is important to know. The people of Israel, including the spiritual leaders, were out of relationship with God. The mystical experiences of prophets and seers were few and far between. It was a dry spell. God had mostly stopped talking to them. At least that’s what they told themselves.
Samuel must have known this. He had no reason to think God would be talking to him. So when the voice came in the night, Samuel thought it must be Eli, his mentor. Three times, he went to Eli, saying “Here I am.”
Samuel was paying attention and ready to serve.
He didn’t know who was calling on him, because he didn’t know to expect God to speak so directly.
He thought it was someone else on the phone, and he ran to answer.
The important knowledge in this encounter comes in three phases:
1. Samuel knows he’s being called.
2. Eli knows it must be God.
3. God knows Samuel will answer.
But it feels like we’ve unpacked the story backwards, because really the last thing is the first thing. God knew who to call, because God knew Samuel so well.
Psalm 139 sings of God’s attention to us and God’s intimate knowledge of us. Long before anyone really knew how a human being developed in the womb, a poet wrote these words:
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:13-16, NRSV)
God who knows us, intimately, may call us to do things that frighten us at first, but God knows we can do them, because God knows who we truly are.
The job God has for Samuel is fitted to Samuel’s gifts, but it is not an easy one. It’s never easy to be a prophet. And when we continue on in Chapter 3 of 1 Samuel, to the verses named as optional in the lectionary, a nice Sunday School story about a young boy who hears God and answers becomes something very different.
Hear the rest of the story:
Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” (1 Samuel 3:11-14, NRSV)
The person Samuel served and trusted was in big trouble with God. The message Samuel had to bring was not just for himself, not a request by God that he pick up his room at the Temple or do a better job on his Hebrew lessons or sing his prayers more tunefully.
No. God’s message was clear and hard: Eli would be held accountable for letting his own sons go wrong. Nothing Eli could do would make up for it.
Too many times Eli did what we do when the answering machine is on, and the message says “Speak!” but we walk out of the room or hit delete before we can hear what God is saying.
The story continues:
Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.
But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.”
Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”
So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then (Eli) said, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” (1 Samuel 3:15-18, NRSV)
Maybe this isn’t just a story about Samuel, after all. Maybe it’s also a story about Eli, who finally chose to listen to the message on the machine, even though it wasn’t a word of encouragement or a promise that things would get better.
Toward the end of “Rent,” when all the characters are in major disarray, their relationships a mess and everything going you-know-where in a handbag, we hear three answering machine messages being sung together, the father and mothers of three of the young people wondering, in English and Spanish, where in the world they are and why they are not picking up the phone or calling back. I’m a mother of young adults, and I find the search for their children heart-wrenching. And yet I make fun of myself sometimes when I am leaving those kinds of messages, even singing into the phone once, just like those mothers, ending as one of them does, singing, “Call. Your. Muh-ther.”
It must hurt God when we don’t pick up the phone.
I wonder, what is it we are afraid God will ask us to do?
Maybe the story about Eli is the one we need to hear. He redirects Samuel, encouraging him to be open to the voice of God. He insists on hearing the truth, even though he has to know it’s going to be hard, or Samuel would not be so reluctant to share it with him.
What are we afraid to hear?
Maybe we’re afraid to hear God at all. Because that God who knows us so well *will* tell us the truth. And once we understand what God wants, it’s hard to go back to living the way we did before.
This is as true for churches as it is for individuals. God knows us, as a collective body, knows what we can do and calls us out of our comfort zone to do and be more, whether we want to hear the message or not. And when the rest of us have our hands over our ears, God will find the one who doesn’t and say it one more time.
So, we might as well listen. We might as well lean into the love of the one who knows every nook and cranny of our minds, every ache in our bones, every yearning of our bodies, every desire of our hearts, and every capability of our whole selves. We might as well lean into the love of the one who made us. We might as well say, “Speak, Lord,” and mean it this time. In the name of the one who searches and knows us. Amen.