Sermon for Epiphany 3, January 14, 2017- the rev. Stephanie Shepard

1 Samuel 3:1-10

St. John the Apostle, Port Moody

“God in Dialogue”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Cats have selective attention.  You can stand at the door and call their name for hours before they deign to come inside.  (Cats actually don’t seem to care very much for what name another species refers to them; they probably have their own names).  But crinkle the smallest bit of paper in the kitchen and they come running to see what interesting food you are about to share.  We humans choose what we pay attention to as well.  There is so much going on around us, we have to filter out what we think is not important, or rely on technology to do it for us.   We can get distracted by the shiny bits of information that are dangled in front of us to get our attention, and lose the deeper messages embedded in the noise. Too often we can overlook or misinterpret what is going on unless we have reliable ways to make meaning.

The story of Samuel and Eli from the Hebrew Scriptures is all about being ready to listen.  Listening to God, but also listening to each other.  It takes both the young boy and the old man to make sense of their experience in the darkness of the Temple.  One hears.  The other understands.  And this intergenerational exchange takes courage, humility, and love.  It is a model for dialogue, in our families, in our Church, and in our world.

In the Scriptures, the boy Samuel has been dedicated by his parents to serve at the Hebrew shrine at Shiloh. There Eli is the elderly priest, along with his own two sons.  Things were not going well at the Temple- there was corruption and contempt for the holy things and the sacrifices, and Eli was disheartened that his own children were so disobedient.  They wouldn’t listen to him or to God.  So in the middle of the night, God tries another way.  God calls out to Samuel.

We have this wonderful little comedy of errors where Samuel keeps mistaking God’s voice for that of the old priest, and goes running to wake up Eli.  By the third time, Eli realizes that this is the voice of the Creator speaking to the boy, a voice he and his sons had not been able to hear for some time.  It was the passion, vision and faithful innocence of Samuel that allowed him to be woken up to the revelation.  But it took courage and humility on Eli’s part to instruct the boy to respond.  No longer was the elder the conduit for the holy.  Instead, he accepts that his role is to mentor and encourage the younger servant as he grows to know God.

The name “Samu-el” means “God heard” in Hebrew.  It refers to the prayer that his mother Hannah made, pleading with God to overcome her barrenness.  But Samuel is also the one God heard, when he is guided to reply to the voice speaking in the darkness.  Rabbi Rashi writes a commentary on 1 Samuel 3 that contemplates the breath, or spirit of God residing in the Holiest of Holies in the shrine at Shiloh.  When God speaks, His breath jumps over Eli, who is within the shrine, to Samuel, who is in the outer room.  So God’s word can jump over those who consider themselves more knowledgeable or wise to the one who is open to hearing.

But neither the young nor the old alone was sufficient for this call.  Samuel didn’t have the experience or the context to make sense of what was happening to him.  And Eli had look beyond his own offspring and past practice to find a new way to meet God’s plan.  They needed each other.  And so do we.  That is one of the reasons why we keep reading this great story we call the Bible when we gather.   Together we listen, we hear, and we respond.

The experiences the Bible relates are relevant to our own struggles to find meaning.  The original settting may be a long time ago, but the motivations and feelings of people haven’t changed all that much.  Through their weaknesses, greed, despair, joy, and pain, we find ourselves.  If we ignore them, we do not learn.  We end up making the same mistakes.  And once we think that we have it all figured out and don’t need another perspective, we will miss new information that can change our view.  The generations have to work together to listen to our stories and make meaning.

So how good are we at listening to each other?  For our children, the stories of our tradition communicate what is important to living good and caring lives.  Our job is to help make the connections so young and old can see the relevance of God’s call.  The Church community is the place we make meaning.  Mature followers of Jesus lead by example, through faithfulness and stewardship, through engagement in their baptismal ministries and through the courage to share how God intersects with daily life.  Our willingness to accept, to explain, and to encourage the development of their listening skills helps the whole community to stay open to where God is calling us next.

It goes both ways, of course.  We can learn from the young how to let go of prejudices and stereotypes from our own upbringing.  And we can learn from them how to see and hear the world from a stance of wonder and curiosity.  When a child asks, “What’s that?” and “Why?” we are reminded to keep questioning what God is doing and how we can be a part.  And when a question stumps us, we have to examine more deeply what we thought we believed and why.  “Because I said so” shuts down the conversation.  “I don’t know” opens it up so we can both hear.  Children can make the simplest statements and ask the hardest questions.

8 year old Autumn Peltier asked why she could only drink bottled water on her First Nations reserve in Ontario.  Her aunt Josephine Mandamin explained about the pollution in their watershed and the importance of clean and sacred water for all people.  Autumn took up a campaign to speak up on behalf of Anishinaabe and non-indigenous peoples.  With support from her family and community, she will be presenting her concerns to the United Nations General Assembly this spring, a body that has the moral and persuasive authority to promote change in its member countries.  2018-2028 is going to be declared the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development.  And it will happen if we listen to God speaking through young people like Autumn and have the wisdom and courage to act.

We want to know God has spoken.  Here we are, living in a modern world- a literalist, historical and scientific paradigm that wants proof.  How are we called to make heart meaning, moral meaning, together?  I believe that the Church has to do more than theo-logy:  talking about God.  I believe we need to do more theo-audicy:  listening to God together.   And that starts with doing more listening to each other, especially across the generations.   Because God does speak through God’s servants.  I have an invitation for you.  Today after worship find someone in the congregation that comes from a different generation than you.  Talk to that individual.  And most importantly, be ready to listen.  Where is God in their story?  How is God calling you to work with them?

Let’s widen our attention so that we are not just noticing what we expect to see and hear.  Through our Scriptures, through our stories, through our neighbours:  God is speaking.  Are we ready to listen?  Amen.