1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Prayer, you know, is not about reading of a list of concerns. Prayer is about, for once in our lives, sitting down and shutting up. God knows, all too well, what trouble we are in, and does not need to be reminded. God does, however, need our attention, if this relationship between us and God is going to get anywhere.
Reflecting on today’s lesson from the first book of Samuel, I was very intrigued with what a seminary professor wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Hearing God’s voice was critical for the prophetic witness of Dr. King. In January 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he received a threatening phone call late at night. He couldn’t sleep. He went to his kitchen and took his “problem to God.” He was at a breaking point of exhaustion and about to give up. He spoke to God and says that he experienced the Divine and “could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’” His fears and uncertainty ceased because God spoke and gave him “inner calm.” God provided the interior resources for him to do his social justice work. He needed God to speak first. Then he could act. He listened prayerfully then proclaimed prophetically.[i]
This professor went on to say that prayer was “the Power behind [King’s] words and work.”
It’s not a coincidence that King regularly took a “Day of Silence” to pray, plan, and listen. Listening was his lifeline. It was a critical part of his prophetic witness. In fact, it was the beginning of it, as was the case with Samuel. King took time to listen in order to do God’s work of love, mercy, and justice in the world.[ii]
King is far from the only political figure, caught in the cross-fires of justice-work and public scrutiny, who would find regular silent retreats absolutely necessary to continuing the work they heard God calling them to do. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, and the nation’s first woman cabinet secretary, went each month to an Episcopal convent in Maryland, often talking with no one during her 24-hour visit there.
King and Perkins, and no doubt other public servants, find the resources to do extraordinary things not as volunteers, giving a little bit extra to get the job done, but as servants. They are doing not only what God has called them to do, but doing all of it out of the resources that God alone can give. There may indeed be atheists in foxholes, where things could look bleak and hopeless. But there are no volunteers for the work of mission, no volunteers to do the hard work, the detail work, the often mind-numbing day-to-day work of bringing about justice and mercy in this world. No one would volunteer to do the kind of work King did; only a servant who sat down one night, terrified and bone-tired and silent, and in the silence found that God indeed would provide the resources to do all the work that God wanted to be done.
All our lessons today have to do with identity: our identity in the light of who God is calling us to be.
Despite aged Eli’s just wanting to go back to sleep, young Samuel knows that it is God’s insistent voice that is waking him in the night. Psalm 139 is a psalm of creation – our creation – extolling “God’s ongoing work in bringing us to fullness of life, unwrapping the mystery of us and loving us all the while.”[iii]
Nathanael, interested in Jesus but not yet impressed enough to become a disciple, is stunned at how perceptive Jesus is. “Where did you get to know me?” he asks. “Indeed, how did Jesus get to know him, and us?”[iv]
Surely, like Nathanael, it is easier to think of ourselves as volunteers for God, and not full-fledged servants who get woken up at night and can’t find a fig tree big enough to hide behind. Surely, like Samuel, we are too young or inexperienced. Surely we lack the skills or abilities God needs for some part of that mission. Surely we don’t have enough money or enough time, we don’t have the courage of Martin Luther King or the perseverance of Frances Perkins. There is nowhere we can go to sit in silence, even if we thought God did have something to say to us, no opportunity on our horizon for us to be big or important or to make a difference.
There is a story of a young, eager rabbi, one who wanted to make his mark on the world. After diligent study and tireless preparation, this young Rabbi Zusya still felt a failure, discouraged and downhearted about all he had not been able to accomplish. Finding this young pupil down in the dumps, an older rabbi said, “Zusya, when you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, ‘Why weren't you Moses?’ No, God will say, ‘Why weren't you Zusya?’ So why don't you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?”[v]
We are getting ready for our Annual Meeting, a terrific time to take stock – of the year, or years, past, and of the future in which we will spend the rest of our lives. The reports we will be reading at that meeting will show us that we have accomplished some remarkable things, but that very real challenges lie ahead. At such a moment in the 50-year-young history of this parish are we not like that young rabbi Zusya, worrying about what we have not done and what we fear cannot do?
Would you volunteer for such a future?
Or in the silence of the night, or of a crystal-clear dawn, or a snowy afternoon, do you hear God calling you -- and us -- to something bigger, more courageous and more exciting?
Speak Lord, your servant is listening.
[i] Luke Powery on MLK and lessons for Epiphany 2B http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-1-samuel-3-1-20
[iii] Kate Mathews Huey -- http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-15-2012-second-sunday.html