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A Voice in the Night

January 16, 2012

“A Voice in the Night” 1 Samuel 3:1-4:1a Ordinary 2B © 1.15.12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Ministers are expected to know a little bit about a great range of subjects. Sometimes I think we’re the last generalists. We have to have at least a passing acquaintance with law, medicine, science, psychology, sociology, contemporary culture, information technology and social media, management and finance, sports—the list goes on and on. Sometimes such knowledge is necessary in order to complete with some success the various tasks which are part and parcel of a typical day in ministry, whether the pastor is preparing for a committee meeting or visiting the parishioner facing surgery. Other times, being able to talk about a number of topics simply comes in handy at gatherings or makes the conversation over lunch go a little more smoothly.

But however important broad general knowledge and education may be, it is not the essence of ministry. When I was a seminary student, I worked with a minister who had flown fighters in the Navy and had his own small plane. But I suspect the piloting his congregation was more interested in was the navigation of the shifting channels of life’s river. I once knew a pastor who was both a minister and a medical doctor, but when he served a church in Montgomery, the healing his people most sought was the cure of souls. Another colleague in ministry teaches pottery during the summer at Montreat. The people in her congregation may value that skill, but they most want her to help them shape their values. I have many books in my library, but you want to know this morning that I have studied the book, the Bible. A pastor may lunch with the leaders of the community at the Rotary Club or be interviewed for the paper, but her most important conversations are with the Sovereign of the universe. The minister is first and foremost to be a person in touch with the Holy.

Why then did Eli the Israelite priest mistake as drunken babblings the prayers of a desperate woman named Hannah who came one day to plead for a son? How was it that his years of experience in pastoral care did not enable him to recognize her despair and pain? Why in the middle of the night years later did not Eli immediately recognize that God was speaking to the boy Samuel, the miracle baby Hannah had asked for?

Maybe when you haven’t prayed yourself for a long time, at least with any fervency, focus or feeling, you lose the ability to recognize the genuine article. Or when you haven’t heard the voice of God for what seems like eons, it takes a while to figure out who’s speaking to you. We’ve all had those phone calls in which someone starts speaking without identifying themselves, and we’re mentally scrambling for a name, a context, a face. We may even finally say “Who is this?” Maybe it was like that for Eli with God.

Perhaps he was distracted by many other concerns, as we are so often. Goodness knows he had enough to worry about. His sons, for instance. They had followed in dad’s footsteps, the two of them, and gone to seminary, as we would say, then come back to their home town for ministry. But they were greedy and corrupt, demanding higher and higher salaries for less and less satisfactory work, and when they didn’t get what they wanted, they had their staff take it from the worshippers. They were immoral; today they would have had women lining up to sue them for sexual misconduct and harassment. To his credit, Eli tried to put a stop to the wrongdoing, but nothing worked. Finally, a prophet came to him and told him God was fed up; those boys and Eli’s whole clan were about to fall under judgment.

The voice in the night that spoke to Samuel repeated that message and commanded the youngster to tell Eli, a grown man, his mentor, that Eli and his kind were history. Can you imagine? The first time you hear the voice of God, and he tells you to deliver bad news? No wonder Samuel hesitated, and Eli practically had to threaten him to drag the information from his lips. But Samuel’s vision, scary or not, marked the beginning of something new. God was once again speaking in Israel. It had been a long time since anyone could say that. In the word of judgment was ironically a promise of grace: “I am about to do something in Israel that will tingle the ears of everyone who hears it.” We would say the Lord was promising spine-tingling excitement, something so awesome it would make everyone sit up and take notice. God was at work again, and he had a spokesman people could trust, namely, Samuel the prophet.

If we think this story of visions in the night and young boys hearing voices sounds far-fetched and irrelevant, consider this: Samuel’s call came in the midst of a time not unlike ours. It was an era of moral chaos. The last tragic sentence in the book of Judges tells us that at this time “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Brutality was more the norm than the exception; violence, especially against women, was commonplace and even accepted. This is all too familiar. We are a people divided when it comes to just about anything to do with values and viewpoints. There really is no consensus as to what is right and wrong or else what is right and wrong are oddly defined. Or we strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, paying attention to trivia but turning a blind eye to travesties of justice and the suffering of our neighbors.

But if the tale of Samuel offers a diagnosis of our current malady, it also gives clues to what we can do to be part of the solution instead of the problem. First of all, the generations need to work together to discern the call of God. Too often in the church as in society, there is rivalry between and among generations. But that is not the pattern in this ancient story. It may have taken Eli a while to recognize that the Lord was on speaking terms with humanity again, but when the older man caught on, he helped the young boy know how to respond. The wisdom of the gray-bearded was imparted to the one who still had peach fuzz on his face. And when Eli heard the harsh news, he was an example of commitment and obedience. He took Samuel seriously as a messenger of God, though he was only a child. The church is always enriched when such conversations take place. Cannot older and younger learn from each other, and take each other seriously as those who together seek to find God’s will? Can’t the insulation and isolation of generations be overcome in the church? We are at our best and are the most effective witnesses when we get beyond the suspicion and distrust born of different experiences, dissimilar tastes in music and dress, and diverse viewpoints and show the world what harmony looks like. What an example that would be to society at large! Maybe then the church would seem to count for something positive instead of the usual image of judgmental, narrow people interested only in telling others what not to do.

So the generations can cooperate in the quest for God’s will. But secondly, we need to work hard to restore trust in the church as a representative of Christ. Paul spoke of our being “jars of clay,” but too often especially leaders in the churches have been shown to be all too easily broken, and the shards of those shattered pots have wounded others. Betrayals, misconduct, scandals, exclusive attention to hot button issues, and partisan politicking have weakened the trust of people in the Church, capital “c.” In the most recent Gallup Poll, taken last June, less than half of those interviewed said they had a great deal of confidence in the Church and organized religion, while a combined 51% said they only some or even no confidence. Between 1973 and 1985, the Church was the top institution, with as many as 68% confident in it; the current numbers represent a 20 point drop from the highest point in the early 1970s (http://www.gallup.com/poll/148163/americans-confident-military-least-congress.aspx).

Or if you don’t trust polls, how about your own observations and experiences? How many congregations and presbyteries have seen power plays, backstabbing, gossip, and plenty of generally unchristian behavior? It’s bad enough when corruption and abuse happen in the secular world, like universities or the workplace, but the church is supposed to represent good and right, to stand for the best in people. We are to be the visible demonstration of what God intends for all humanity. Be assured: a congregation may be squeaky clean, a minister’s reputation unsullied, but when the unchurched and dechurched look at us, sometimes little distinction is made; we have to deal with the negative baggage. I learned that during Clinical Pastoral Education in a hospital during my doctoral studies. I could walk into a room as a chaplain, and if the patient already had a good view of ministers, I would be welcomed. If not, things didn’t go so well. The reception had little to do with me; it was what I represented.

My point is that we have an uphill battle in today’s world. In our policies and practices, the church has to be particularly attuned to perception, avoiding even the very appearance of impropriety and certainly avoiding doing evil. Samuel by his faithfulness restored trust in the priesthood and the prophet guilds. Our challenge is to show those who have been sometimes terribly betrayed that the God we proclaim as trustworthy can indeed be trusted, that there is real security and goodness in the world, and that those who name the name of Christ take their responsibilities as God’s representatives and stewards seriously.

So the generations need to work together to discern God’s call. The church must work to restore trust. And third, we need to speak a clear word from God. Douglas John Hall has commented in his challenging work Professing the Faith that there are a number of people today who are “newly awakened to the need to know the faith they profess, desire to profess, or at least cannot fully renounce” (22). These folk are not satisfied with what I have called “Gospel lite” (spell out). If it were beer, the slogan would be “easy to swallow.” They want something more rigorous and thought-provoking than they are typically offered in the churches, but they are not attracted either to the dogmatic intolerance of the far right or the no boundaries attitude of the far left. Here is a striking sentence from Hall: “The only faith that can speak to them is one that allows them the freedom to explore its claims without restrictions, and one that is profound enough to engage their deepest anxieties and give substance to whatever remains of their highest ideals” (23).

I think there is a clear and profound word of God that we can speak that includes both the demand of God and the marvelous gift, that engages the mind and the emotions, that does not stoop to the extreme rhetoric of the right or the left. The only question is, are we willing to speak it?

As we install ruling elders this morning, we are reminded afresh of the call each of us has. As Janice and Andy reaffirm their vows, we are invited to reflect on our own promises to God and the task to which he summons us. In a fearful and broken world, we are privileged to tell the story that will bring hope again, that will lift the spirits of the downtrodden, and promise wholeness to the wounded. I am drawn to the words of the hymn: “I, the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne my people’s pain. I have wept for love of them, they turn away. I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone. I will speak my word to them. Whom shall I send?” (Daniel L. Schutte)

“Whom shall I send?” Is the voice in the night speaking to you?

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