“A Night Caller” / I Samuel 3:1-10 / 14 January 2018
It’s like a whisper in the night, but it’s not. It’s almost like a gentle familiar-seeming voice, but that you’ve never heard before, and it’s softly speaking your name. It’s comes like a single slow note, played sweet and long on a cello, an oboe: thin, haunting, lovely, speaking a desire, a dream that no human tongue can tell. You’ve known these things, now and again, have you not? They’ve called to you. There are moments when we hear echoes, however brief, from beyond the world we see. They call us to better things than those that are. The breath of an infant, falling asleep in your arms, and the knowledge that you’ve no greater duty in life than to love and protect her, to teach him and prepare him for a world that’s broken your own heart more than once. It’s the regretful pang of the road not taken, with its winding uphill grade, passing under yellow leaves, leaves full of promises deferred for another day. Those rare occasional moments when the words of a book, or a song, or please God maybe even a sermon, strike a chord deep in your heart, a chord that gets struck far too seldom. They ring a bell in a belfry that we thought was devoid of bells. When in a moment’s time, you feel the real conviction that you’re at last, finally, on the edge of something big in your life, something new, something that’s been awakening inside of you for years. Do you know the feeling that I mean? Sometimes it might even waken you in the night, claiming you, naming you, calling, calling. There are times when you know—you just know—that you have been sought. You have been led.
Edna was a stately old lady who moved to our small town from a wealthy suburb of Kansas City. Nobody ever moved to that town, except pastors and their families. But here she was, sitting in church week after week, suffering through the sermons with a look of pained, impenetrable boredom on her face. It was the face of a woman who’d just eaten a piece of chalk. I kind of wondered why she bothered coming to church at all, but not everyone comes to hear a sermon. Some come because it’s a good way to meet their neighbors. Whatever her motivation, she was there, week after week. As is my practice when someone begins attending church, I made a call on her at home, and I was impressed. Well into her 70s, Edna was building herself a brand new house out in the country—cutting no corners, sparing no costs. The woodwork was all beautiful black cherry from local forests. I showed up at her beautiful new place, and the first thing Edna said to me was, “Don’t talk to me about religion. It’s not my thing.” I assured Edna that I had…a few other topics within my small sphere, and we spent a pleasant hour drinking lemonade on her back deck. She had moved to our obscure little place in the forest to be near her daughter and grandson in retirement. I learned that Edna had been a major politician in the Kansas City area, where she was used to throwing dinner parties for local celebrities. She picked our small main street church because someone told her that it was where the town’s judges, and doctors, and old families came to pray—and that was true. She wanted to make friends. Problem was, people just didn’t get Edna. She was “cordial” in a place that preferred “easygoing,” “mannerly” in a place where people wanted you to be “personable.” Where other people would use the word “okay” or “alright,” Edna would say “very well.” And she might be the only person I’ve ever known who could pull it off. Besides, it’s hard to make friends in small towns where society is so close-knit.
Edna threw grand old parties in her high suburban style, inviting all the single ladies her own age, but no one ever invited Edna anywhere. Then Edna tried throwing a party and inviting just the younger folks in the church, but it didn’t go well. One couple brought their kids, which threw Edna completely off her game. All the beverages were alcoholic, so I just drank tap water, which made her feel like a bad hostess—and maybe like I was judging her, which I was not. After about a year of trying to make friends, Edna got discouraged. But she kept showing up at church, enduring the weekly sermon like a root canal, just in hopes that someone other than just the minister might actually speak to her. But they rarely did. I felt bad for Edna. She admitted to me that there were times when she really wanted to move back to Kansas City. She’d been so well loved back there. What was she doing in this place where no one spoke the way she did, where no one even seemed to like her?
Then, unexpectedly, Edna’s forty-something daughter died of a heart attack in the middle of the night. Edna had moved almost a thousand miles to build her new house just next door to this daughter. Along with her grief, there was the question, “What now?” Ah, but that daughter left a grief-stricken fourteen year old boy at home, a kid whose absentee father spent most of his time in New York. He was a kid who suddenly really needed a grandmother. I visited Edna, of course. And I said to her gently, “I know you don’t like me to talk about religion. It’s not your thing. But what would have happened to your grandson if you hadn’t been here?” She did admit that perhaps she had been led to that otherwise unhappy place by something bigger than herself, that at this time in her life duty was a more urgent call than happiness. She had been led.
When have you looked over your shoulder in life, gazed across some pivotal experience, glanced back over the years, and realized that you did not make this journey entirely under your own power? Can you not look at your life and confidently say, “The road wasn’t always easy, and it took me to some places where I didn’t want to be, but I have been sought; I have been called; I have been led”?
This story from First Samuel is a Sunday school teacher’s dream. It’s dramatic and suspenseful; it has a pleasing narrative arc, and it’s brief—which is always good with the under-ten crowd. Most importantly, it’s one of only a handful of Bible stories where the main character is a child. As literature, this is pretty good stuff, too. Back in 2006, the editors of The Week Magazine named First and Second Samuel among the top 100 best books of all time. These are Bible stories with complex characters, and mixed motives, and poetic, concrete imagery. It’s late at night; the temple is dark; the lamp above the altar—which ought to burn all the time—is growing dim. A sleeping, half blind old priest named Eli is in charge, but he’s been running on fumes for years. Old Eli has his hands full with his two ne’er-do-well adult sons. They’re supposed to be stepping up soon to let Eli retire, but the old priest knows they’re buffoons, and so he just keeps on keeping on—despite the fact that he long ago outlived his zeal, his vision.
And into this dark night of failing vision and sputtering lamps, a whisper is heard. God steals up on a servant boy named Samuel, wakens him in the night, and whispers God’s words to him. Darkness, diminishing light, lack of vision. And all of it in the temple of the Lord, a place that’s supposed to be lively and joyous and bright. The images come together to tell a tale: faith was in decline. People didn’t trust their leaders. The church was a dark place where there was no vision. The Word of the Lord was rare.
Yes, into this scene of failed faith, empty religion, the Spirit comes as a night caller, just a-whispering, whispering in the night. Three times, the child Samuel responds with the inept answer that echoes throughout the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Here I am,” until old Eli, in his faded wisdom teaches young Samuel the appropriate response to give whenever the Spirit comes to call. No, it’s not a passive, “Here I am,” but an active, “Speak. Speak, Lord, for I’m listening.” Do you notice that old Eli isn’t looking for God, and young Samuel’s not looking for God. God, the Night Caller, comes looking for him.
And this is the question that haunts the spiritual journey: Who’s doing the seeking, the finding? Now, I know that it’s popular to talk about seeking God, and I don’t mean to dismiss that idea. There’s a real spiritual thirst in our world today, and people seek ways to satisfy it. I don’t object to that. But the idea seems to be that God is hiding out there somewhere, like Waldo, and must be found. And so they take their spiritual quests to ashrams in India, like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. People follow their hunt for the holy to temples in Nepal and monasteries in Tibet. Our spiritual longings will drive us to daily email meditations by the wonderful Richard Rohr, or to the poetry of Mary Oliver, or the wisdom of Brené Brown. We’ll listen to TED talks, and walk labyrinths, and do hot yoga, and pay attention to our breathing. Yes, people out there are definitely seeking something more than their iPhones and Google Home Minis can provide. It was even popular for a while for young evangelicals to join Eastern Orthodox churches and sit mesmerized by incense and bearded priests chanting in a language the congregation doesn’t understand. Me? I’ve told you before that I’d like to take my own spiritual quest to the ancient village churches of Cornwall. And Newfoundland! A part of me believes that if I could just spend a week alone under the stars in Newfoundland, I’d come home with a long beard and a calm demeanor. I’d understand all the mysteries of the universe and never get testy with anyone again.
But truly? My own spiritual journey wasn’t that dramatic. First it took me to a back pew at a Presbyterian church, and I guess I’ve been here ever since. And though at the time I wasn’t sure I believed in any of it, I liked the ritual of it all: the standing and sitting, the Doxology, the Lord’s Prayer, the reverence, the beauty. I liked the way those holy words washed over me in all my doubts—which were surely holy in their way, too. I like how the pipe organ rattled those old stained glass windows. I liked being reminded just once a week that there are other lenses through which to see the world than the heavy goggles of my workaday life. I had grown up in churches that had no beauty, no reverence…only dogma and easy answers to hard questions. And so I came to that church done with belief, but wanting to believe. I came for the novelty of it, but stayed to pray, stayed for the gradual strength that it slowly nurtured in me, for the slow sense of something awakening within. In a way, I was seeking God. But in a bigger way, God was drawing me to Godself. God was seeking me, pulling me, calling my name in the darkness of my night, just as God did with Samuel so long ago…and just as God has done in your life every now and again…and perhaps even today.
Let me ask you this: Do you sometimes get the vague, persistent impression that something new is taking shape in you? You don’t know what it will become or where it is tending, but it’s not unlike a whisper in the night, humming through your soul, perhaps at times a joy, sometimes a sorrow, sometimes a holy outrage at the way things are. When you open the newspaper to read about an act of extraordinary and unnecessary mercy, and you feel a whisper inside your spirit bidding you do more. When you hear grotesquely dehumanizing words leveled at the world’s poorest, and uttered by one who ought to be above reproach, one who ought to provide for us an example of judicious language and decency…and a whisper calls your name in the darkness of our night: Resist! Resist this arrogance, this hate! When a quiet moment alone borders on something akin to prayer, and you realize that you want to spend more of your life that way. Oh you! You are being sought. You are being called. You are being led.
You don’t have to be a fan of science fiction to read Douglas Adams’ comic novel, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You can read it just for the humor. In it, there’s an incident where the two main characters are locked up in an alien spaceship and about to suffocate. The earthling declares, “You know, it’s at times like this when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young!” His companion from Betelgeuse asks, “Why, what did she tell you?” The answer comes, of course, “I don’t know, I didn’t listen!”
We all get a little uncomfortable when we hear people saying, “I just think God is telling me to do this, or do that.” A girl in college once told me that God was telling her to marry me. It was strange; we weren’t even dating. And not only did we never get married, it kind of crushed the chances that we could even be friends. But here’s the thing about the callings that we hear deep down in the quiet places of our souls: they don’t go away. They’re not usually dramatic, but they can wake you up in the night. They’re never loud, but they are persistent. In these days of rampant injustice and overt cruelty; in these nights when our tired minds try to shut down and rest, but remain filled with the unwholesome things they’ve seen and heard; in these days…God is calling you to something new. You have sought God in your way at times. But more than that, you have been sought. You have been called. You have been led. And what must you do? Simple. You say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.