“Called by Name”
Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-21
January 15, 2012
Woodleaf United Methodist Church (9:30 am)
Mount Tabor United Methodist Church (11:00 am)
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth
My mother, Nancy, loves to tell the story of the time when she and my father, Steve Goforth, were driving down the road to Key West on their honeymoon. My father had her convinced that he was such a romantic and dashing guy. She recalls how he had even written a song just for her not long after they started dating. Instead of referring to my mother as Nancy, he began simply calling her “Darlin’.” The song he wrote for her was simply called “You don’t have to call me Darlin’, Darlin’. You never even call me by my name.’” Maybe you’ve heard the song before. Well, my mother wasn’t accustomed to listening to country music, but it was a long drive down to Key West and so the radio was on a country station the whole way there.
Then my mother likes to tell about how they had just gotten to Jacksonville, Florida when lo and behold the exact song that my father wrote for her came across the radio! It didn’t take long for my mother to suspect that my father had been telling her that he wrote the song just for her, when really he had only just heard David Allan Coe singing it. Do you know that song? Well, my father had to think quickly because he had been found out. So when my mother started to realize that maybe my father had been putting her on about the song he wrote just for her, he told her not to jump to any conclusions because he had sent the song to David Allan Coe a few weeks before and told him that he thought it would be perfect for him to sing and the only thing he had to do was to give him credit by mentioning his name on the radio. So they listened for my father’s name.
And if you know the song, you’re probably aware that David Allan Coe says that a good friend of his named Steve Goodman wrote that song. My father couldn’t believe it! “How could he have gotten my last name wrong!” he cried! “Well, you know how those singers are, Darlin’, they’ve been up next to all those loud speakers at concerts for so many years, I bet he just heard my name incorrectly! It just goes to show you that you just can’t trust your ears sometimes. I’ll have to tell him it’s Goforth and not Goodman when we get settled back home.” And my mother almost believed him. Unfortunately, my father never “wrote” any more country songs, and my mother listened to the radio a lot more. But dad raises a good point–you just can’t trust your ears sometimes.
The young boy Samuel and the old priest Eli in our Old Testament lesson this morning are good examples of this. Samuel is asleep in the Temple of the Lord, snoozing next to the ark of the covenant, when he is called by his name, “Samuel, Samuel!” Startled, he runs in to Eli’s room where he tells the almost blind priest, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli basically tells him in what amounts to the ancient Hebrew equivalent that “you just can’t trust your ears sometimes.” And he sends him back to bed. This happens a second time just like the first with the same result. Samuel and Eli are both not trusting their ears at this point. Samuel thinks he is being called to help out in some way, and Eli is starting to wonder why it is that young Samuel keeps hearing his name being called in the middle of the night in the Temple. But then it happens a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” When the boy comes in that third time, Eli realizes from his years of service in the Temple that it must be the voice of the Lord calling to him. He tells Samuel that when he lays back down and hears the voice calling to him to answer, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
And Samuel listens. And Samuel trusts his ears. And Samuel hears the voice of God calling to him. I love how these Old Testament stories seem to almost tell themselves. The symbolism is so vivid here. We’re told at the outset of this story that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days,” and that “visions were not widespread.” And the old priest, Eli, was almost blind. You’ve heard enough of these stories in the Old Testament to know that when someone is physically blind that it probably is a foreshadowing of the fact that they might have some sort of spiritual blindness too. Such is certainly the case with Eli. His two sons were the epitome of how not to act as a priest of God. But then we’re told that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” And remember, the ark of the covenant was symbolic of the very presence of God. And Samuel is lying right next to it.
And Samuel listens. And Samuel trusts his ears. And Samuel hears the voice of God calling to him. There are several things that we should pick up on as modern servants listening for the voice of God in our day in this story.
First, we should learn that the voice of God is mysterious and sometimes hard to understand. The young Samuel heard a voice calling him, several times even, but it took the wisdom and experience of the old vision-impaired Eli (as imperfect as he might have been) to help Samuel understand that it was the voice of God calling to him. There are people like Eli in all our lives, and we should seek out their discernment and their guidance when we hear that strange voice calling us. So the first lesson we should learn is to go seek out Eli.
Secondly, we should learn that the voice of God is most present to us when we are most present to it. Samuel was in the Temple. This is not a coincidence that God’s word came to Samuel when he was nearest to the presence of God. There seems to be a deep distrust in institutions like the church these days. We see it with the sex abuse scandals that have not been strangers to the Catholic Church, and we see it on the news in other denominations and even our own far too often. The Church is not perfect, indeed the Church can even be hypocritical at times. But the lamp of the Lord has not gone out! And it is most often those from within the Church, like Samuel, that can reform it the best. So the second lesson we should learn is not to be a stranger to the house of the Lord.
Thirdly, we should learn that it isn’t enough just to hear the word of the Lord, but that we must respond to that word. Notice that just after Samuel heard the word of God, that he went and he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. How open are our doors? I find it terribly ironic that our marketing campaign of recent years in the United Methodist Church has been “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” yet the doors of most churches are locked for all but a few hours one day a week. If we have been given the word of God, should the doors not be flung wide open to let others know it too! But friends, there is a lot more to it than just holding open a door. How will people know to enter unless they are invited? How will people know to enter these doors unless you invite them? Samuel was afraid to tell what he had been told. And if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we are afraid to tell others the word of God too. It can be a scary thing, but it can also be a wonderful thing. So, the third thing we are to learn is to open the door.
We’re not that different than young Samuel and old Eli. The young in our midst still have much to teach us about God’s word, but they can’t hear it unless the old help them understand how to respond to that often unclear and mysterious voice that calls to us all. But young or old, we are all called to open the doors of God’s house and to invite people in to hear his voice that still calls through Scripture and through Sacrament; through the water and through the word. I think someone wrote a song about that once. Are you listening, Darlin’? Maybe you too are being called by your name. Amen.