I Samuel 3:1-20
The story of Samuel and Eli is an endearing one.
We can all identify with a child’s nocturnal imagination that keeps him or her from sleeping.
Imagining monsters under the bed, imagining someone coming in through the window, imagining a voice calling. Imagining whatever…shadows, things that go bump in the night.
Rational conversation doesn’t help to turn off the creative mind!
It doesn’t just happen to kids though. At any age we have times when we can’t sleep and our minds are out of control.
Three is the stuff of fairy tales.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, the Three Little Pigs, the Three Musketeers.
Samuel waking up three times to a voice calling in the night.
Three is the signal to pay attention.
Three can signify completeness or finality.
Three pops up repeatedly in the Scriptures.
Elijah confronts the false prophets on Mt Carmel, pouring water on the altar three times.
Three times Peter is questioned and three times Peter denies his association with Jesus.
Three times the resurrected Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?”
Three times Paul implores God that his thorn in the flesh be removed.
And, three times Samuel wakes up, goes to Eli and says, “here I am, you called me.”
Marcus Borg writes that the stories of Scripture are the source of an unending conversation. Their meaning continues to unfold.
The conversation has been going on in since the stories were first told verbally.
It is not an intellectual conversation. It is about our cultural context and the transformation of our lives.
This morning I want to participate in this animated conversation. I invite you to join in.
The story of Samuel is the story of three people; Hannah, Eli and Samuel.
There is that three again, pay attention!
Samuel’s story starts with his mother, Hannah.
She is one of many barren women portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Hannah is miserable because she has been unable to bear a son. She also has to bear the unending taunts of her husband’s other wife.
Some of you can identify with her…struggling with fertility issues.
To add insult to injury Hannah goes to the temple and is perceived wrongly by Eli, the priest. He mistakes her anguished prayer for a drunken stupor.
So much for good pastoral care!!! This is about as bad as it gets!
Hannah, to her everlasting credit, stands up for herself and does not allow the false accusation to stand:
“I am a woman deeply troubled…..I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
She uses “I” language rather than “you” language. She speaks her own truth rather than turning on her accuser, a person of power.
Eli, to his credit, recognizes his error, hears Hannah’s pain and blesses her.
Of course, Hannah gets pregnant and has a son.
She is a transformed person.
Hannah is no longer the miserable barren 2nd wife but a woman of power and direction.
Hannah, not her husband, is the one who names the child Samuel.
Hannah, not her husband, is the one who decides to give him to God and take him to the temple when he has been weaned.
All this in a rigid patriarchal society.
What is most amazing is that Hannah gives her long desired son to Eli, the man who had falsely accused her.
Why does she do this?
Hannah and Eli are no longer adversaries but partners.
Hannah’s relationship to Eli is transformed when she confronts him, speaks her truth and receives a blessing.
Still, to give up something so precious. Abraham did the same thing with his willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.
Our human tendency is to cling to what we hold most dear.
A child longed for, particularly when there are fertility issues or miscarriages or a difficult pregnancy. When that child is born, he/she is so precious.
If not a child, what is most dear might be finally getting married after years of looking for the right partner or starting the dream job or saving up enough money for something special.
We want to hold on to it tightly. But, if we do, we destroy it. We must hold on to what God gives us with open hands, lightly.
I remember being a young mother and hearing/reading stories of husbands that died. I was petrified I would lose my husband. One day I realized I needed to let the fear go and hold the gift of my husband lightly, not with clenched hands.
Hannah was willing to let go, letting Samuel become his own person.
When Samuel is weaned, Hannah takes him to the temple.
Weaning signifies a change in the relationship. No longer the closeness or dependency or intimacy that we associate with breast feeding.
Weaning comes when we drop our kids off for day care or nursery school or kindergarten for the first time.
It happens when we drop them off at college freshman year or they move into their first apartment or get married. It is a letting go.
As we let go our children go, they are given the opportunity to define themselves apart from us and grow.
Samuel now defines himself in terms of his role in the temple, under the tutelage of Eli.
One night Samuel hears a voice calling his name, “Samuel, Samuel.” He thinks it is Eli calling him. It is not.
The third time Samuel asks Eli if he called, Eli perceives that God is calling the boy. Eli tells Samuel to respond the next time with “Speak Lord for your servant is listening”.
Sure enough, Samuel hears the voice again and there is a conversation between God and Samuel. What Samuel learns is not good news for Eli.
But like his mother, Samuel is willing to speak truth to Eli and not mince words. Samuel is following in his mother’s footsteps.
A transformation is taking place, Samuel finding his own voice, speaking his own truth. No longer defining himself by his relationship to Eli or the temple.
The story concludes with a commendation;
All Israel knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of God.
In rabbinical literature Samuel is seen as a transition person, living on the cusp of a new era. Israel is moving from the era of judges to the era of the prophets.
The story began with this:
The word of God was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
Samuel is now standing on his own two feet; accessing his own inner, God given wisdom.
His allegiance is to something greater than the institution.
He reminds me of Pope Francis…Not protecting and defending the institutional church but speaking truth. Hopefully Francis’ leadership is moving us into a new era, creating new life.
We celebrated the Week of Christian Unity this past week.
My first exposure to the Week of Christian Unity was a ten day silent retreat I took in 1998 at a Jesuit retreat center.
At the end of the retreat participants spoke of their experience of the silence and our daily gatherings for Eucharist and the Word. Each spoke their own deep wisdom.
Although we came from many Christian traditions the common threads of the sharing was profound. It was Christian unity…emerging out of the silence we had shared. I was in awe. Mennonites love to talk about community discernment but I had never seen it truly practices. Here it was.
Since then I have experienced an even deeper level of unity, that all people of faith, all who are listening deeply, are fed by the same stream.
Our era could also be characterized as a time when visions are not widespread and the voice of God is rare.
But, if we listen, the voice of God is there.
The voice of God is in our dreams and our nudgings. It is in our brother or sister who speaks truth to us. It is in our gathered community and our shared silence. It is present in our wisdom schools and retreats. It is present as we break bread together, listen to the word together.
It is present as we sit in silence with those of other faiths, listening deeply to one another with our hearts.
The voice of God is speaking when we stand up for truth and the common good, regardless of the cost.
The voice of God is in our children. Are we listening to their questions and observations. They have much to tell us.
Dare we not listen?
Dare we not listen?
I close with a poem by Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly, “Is My Soul Asleep?”
Is my soul asleep?
Have those beehives that work
In the night stopped? And the water-
Wheel of thought, is it
Going around now, cups
Empty, carrying only shadows?
No, my soul is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
It neither sleeps, nor dreams but watches,
Its eyes wide open
Far-off things, and listens
At the shores of the great silence.