(Guest preacher: Rev. Dr. Thomas C. Sorenson)
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
So. Back in the pulpit at Prospect UCC. This is where I did my first real preaching. See, I served at this church during the 1998-99 academic year as a seminary intern. Trish, who was the pastor here then, let me preach once a month. And now I’m back, and I wish it were under other circumstances. I’m sure we’re all keeping Pastor Meighan and her family in our prayers. I’m confident that some of you know what it is to lose a loved one to death too soon. I do. I don’t know if any of you remember my wife Francie. She was here with me frequently during that academic year that’s already nineteen years ago now. Francie died of cancer in 2002 at age 55. That kind of loss is one that time softens, but it never goes away. The loss of a loved one is traumatic at any age, but it’s especially hard when our loved one dies too young. So prayers continue for Meighan and her family in this most difficult time for them.
Last Tuesday when Meighan asked me to cover for her today the first thing I did was the first thing I always did during my nearly sixteen years as a parish pastor. I looked up the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for today. Some of you may know that Meighan and I are part of a clergy lectionary group that meets on Monday mornings, but last Monday we never got around to looking at the readings. That happens sometimes when one or more of us needs a lot of check-in time like Meighan and a couple others of us did last Monday. We all know that’s OK, because that group functions as much as a colleague support group as it does as a lectionary group. When I did look at the lectionary readings for today I was struck by how much those two scripture readings that we just heard from the lectionary speak to me of my time here at Prospect while I was in seminary at Seattle University. The story of Samuel hearing a call from God is of course about how God calls people to do the work of God, and it was here at Prospect that I first discerned that my call actually was to parish ministry. Beyond that, while I was here and indeed through all of my time in seminary I carried a copy of Psalm 139 in the front of the notebook I used for class notes. Psalm 139 always reminds me of my time in seminary, and it popped up in the lectionary for a Sunday when I would be preaching at one of my seminary churches. Coincidence? Maybe. Providence? Maybe. Whatever. There they were, so I used them for this morning’s service.
The story of the call of Samuel is one of several call stories of prophets in the Old Testament. It’s a bit different than some of the others because Samuel doesn’t try to get out of the call. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah, two of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, made excuses and tried to get out of God’s call before they finally said yes. Samuel didn’t, and maybe that’s because he’s known his whole life that he has been somehow dedicated to the Lord. After all, his mother had given him away to the temple when he was awfully young. Be that as it may, there are other things about Samuel’s call story that are quite typical of the experiences of people who have discerned a call from God. Samuel doesn’t try to get out of God’s call, but at first (and for quite a while) he doesn’t even realize that it is God who is calling him. He hears something. He hears what he takes to be a human voice, so he assumes it must be Eli calling him. Was the Lord mimicking Eli’s voice? Probably not, but there was no other person present; so Samuel assumes it’s Eli he’s hearing. He assumes that Eli is calling him for quite some time. Three times he goes to Eli. It never occurs to him that it is actually God calling him. He just doesn’t hear a call coming from God.
That’s pretty typical of how God’s calls work. God doesn’t overwhelm us with God’s call. God speaks most often with the still small voice that Elijah hears on the mountain. Most of the time we don’t perceive God’s call as an actual human voice at all. It’s more like a feeling. It’s a sense deep inside that there’s something we’re supposed to be doing that’s different from what we are doing. Most of the time God’s call is easy to ignore, at least for a while. It’s easy to mistake for something else like Samuel did. God called. Samuel didn’t respond because it never occurred to him that what he was hearing was a call from God.
Which leads us to the other thing about Samuel’s call story that is so typical of calls from God. Samuel didn’t hear. Samuel didn’t respond, but God didn’t stop calling. One of the things about a call from God that can be quite irritating to those of us who really don’t want to get a call from God is that once God has decided to call a person, God doesn’t give up. Let me tell you a story from my time at the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry where I was studying when I was first with you some nineteen years ago. At the first orientation meeting I went to for new students in September, 1997, we were asked to introduce ourselves and say a bit about why we were there. Shortly a running joke developed in peoples’ responses. Person after person spoke of how she or he had discerned a call from God and rejected it. The buzz phrase became: God called, and I hung up. Almost every new seminary student in that room had had that experience. I know I had. We all had our reasons for not answering God’s call. Mine were that I was too old (51) and couldn’t afford it. Yet God had given up on none of us. Samuel didn’t respond, and God kept calling, Most of us new students at STM twenty years ago hadn’t responded either, and God kept calling. God keeps calling until we finally hear. God keeps calling until we finally give up and say yes. Samuel finally said yes. So did my classmates at SU. So did I.
Folks, God has called women and men to respond and to do God’s work in the world for as long as human beings have had any sense of the reality of God. God has always had work for God’s people to do. It is no less true today that God has work for God’s people to do. I imagine that many of you share my dismay at what’s going on in our country’s politics today. Racism has raised its ugly head in new and disturbing ways, not least of all in the White House itself. Xenophobia, hatred of foreigners, rises along with it. We hear the highest politicians in the land condemning non-Christian people and associating them all with terrorists, never mind that history has seen plenty of Christian terrorists over the centuries. The president condemns countries and indeed a whole continent most of whose people aren’t white with an obscene epithet. He wants immigrants from Norway, presumably because Norwegians are mostly white not black.
There are all kinds of other ills in the world today, but today I want to focus on racism. That’s partly because America’s original sin of racism has been so obvious in recent days, but it’s also because tomorrow we celebrate the birth of one of our country’s greatest leaders in the struggle for peace and justice, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was human. That means he wasn’t perfect. But Dr. King heard a call from God. He heard many calls from God. He heard first a call to ordained ministry in his Black Baptist tradition. Then he heard a call to graduate studies, so he went and got his Ph.D. in systematic theology—something I always thought I wanted to do but never did. Then, thank God, he heard a call to be a leader in the struggle for equal dignity and rights for America’s millions of Black people who lived under the oppressive conditions of legal and de facto segregation. Then he heard a call to speak out against America’s pointless and destructive war in Viet Nam in which Black Americans suffered in disproportionate numbers. He heard a call to work to improve the economic conditions of all poor people in our country, not just Black people but all people who were economically disadvantaged. Brother Martin heard all of these calls, and he responded. When God called he said yes. He answered as a Christian, and that meant he preached the achievement of justice and peace always through nonviolent means. And he called white people like me, including perhaps especially white clergy like me, out of our complacency and into action for justice and peace.
Folks, I am convinced that today more than any time in the recent past God is calling all of us out of our complacency and into action for justice and peace, for justice and peace are threatened in our country today like they have not been in a long time. There hasn’t been a president as racist as the one we have now perhaps since Woodrow Wilson, a great man in some ways but nonetheless a racist to the core of his being. We have never had a president as reckless in his threats to use nuclear weapons as Donald Trump is. We have rarely had a president who so advocates advantages for the privileged at the expense of the rest of us as he does. I pray that Mr. Trump and his supporters will have a change of heart and a change of mind, but as long as racial prejudice and poverty stalk our land God calls us to action just as God called Samuel to action so long ago and just as God called Martin Luther King to action sixty and more years ago. As we celebrate Dr. King’s birth tomorrow we cannot remain silent about the threats to the wellbeing of Black people in the US and around the world and the other dangers that are so real today. The gospel of Jesus Christ gives us no alternative but to speak out, to speak up, and to get active.
God is calling. About that there really is no doubt. Do we hear? Or do we think we hear some latter day Eli rather than God? If we hear, will we try to get out of the call like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so many others did? God spoke to Samuel. God spoke to Isaiah. God spoke to Jeremiah. God spoke to Jesus. God spoke to Martin Luther King, and God is still speaking. God is speaking to us. God is calling to us. Will we say with Samuel “Speak, for your servant is listening”? Will we hear? Will we answer? I pray that it may be so. Amen.