Called to Awaken

1 Samuel 3:1-10 can be found here...

Is it a bedtime story? Is it a fairy tale? It surely is an unearthly, unsettling account of a child without his parents, but with a guide nonetheless. It’s a story of God’s call to a young child that ends up being a guide to hearing God’s voice for people of all ages.

Samuel was one of those miracle children we read about in scripture, children whose parents didn’t seem able to have a child together until God’s intervention. Out of gratitude to God, Hannah his mother does something that probably seems bizarre to the modern reader: some time between the ages of 3 and 6 years, she fulfills a promise she had made to dedicate his life to God. She brings him to live in the temple at Shiloh, to study with the prophet Eli.

Samuel’s life is chosen for him, even before he is born. He belongs to God. We all belong to God, of course… but for Samuel, that means separation from his mother and father at a very young age.

As our passage opens, we discover Samuel at night, at bedtime, as he and Eli, his aging mentor, are both trying to sleep. Right away the narrator tells us two things to prepare us for what is about to take place. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Sam. 1). What we are about to witness is not commonplace… it represents a change, a intensifying of God’s connection with God’s people.

And… this next part is for us, I think. God calls to Samuel—Samuel! Samuel! Think of that time someone called out to you like that… a double call, saying your name twice…Mom! Mom! We only call people like that—repeating their names—if it’s important, absolutely urgent that we get their attention. But Samuel hears that call, he mistakes it for the voice of his mentor, Eli. And Eli thinks Samuel is just dreaming.

This part is for us, because it’s easy to mistake God’s voice for something else… for our own wants and desires, for dreams that can’t possibly come true. Or, maybe, for pesky thoughts we’d like to chase away, block out, not think about, because they go against what we have been taught to believe is possible.

Finally, Eli understands. Of course he does. It’s true: God’s word hasn’t come to him lately. But he recognizes it when he hears it, if God is persistent enough. He gives the boy instructions, to awaken himself to God’s voice. When he hears the voice again, Eli says, say this: “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

God is still speaking. It can help to have someone else to help us to recognize when it’s happening. It can help us, if God really wants to wake us up.

I’ve been doing some soul-searching about the times in my life when I feel God was calling urgently to me, to wake me up. And there’s one thread that I can’t help returning to. It started when I was a little girl.

I grew up in a loving family, in a South Jersey neighborhood that was, as far as I’m aware, exclusively white. People of color tended to live in the next town over, Atlantic City. A few blocks away from my home was a roller skating rink where my friends and neighbors (and I) often skated on Saturday afternoons. On Tuesday night, though, kids came by bus from Atlantic City to skate, and they walked by our house on the way to the roller rink. These kids were almost exclusively African American. The people in my neighborhood didn’t call Tuesday night “African American Night,” though. They called it something else, using a word that, when I repeated it to my mother, I learned I was never, ever to say again. That was my first wake up call. There was something I didn’t understand about the relationship between white people and black people.

My next wake-up call came on April 5, 1968. I was 7 years old, and in second grade at a Catholic elementary school. That was the day I first heard the name Martin Luther King, Jr. My teacher Miss Ulmer talked about him during religion class, with tears in her eyes, because, the night before, someone had killed Dr. King, and it had something to do with the fact that he was black. That was my second wake up call. I asked my parents about it that evening, as we sat on our porch swing. It was the first time I can remember recognizing their uncertainty, their not being able to answer my questions.

Over the years my understanding grew of the tensions around race in our country. I learned a little about the history of slavery in our country. My Catholic school education was unambiguous about the fact that our call as followers of Jesus was to work towards reconciliation between black and white people. By the time I’d finished college I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the subject.

Then I went to seminary, and took a class called “White Anti-Racism.” That was the true experience of waking up. It was like waking up from a sleep to learn, for example, that the whole idea of “race” developed during the colonial period, created by those who were eager to justify slavery. As Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”

It was also an awakening to realize that, simply by virtue of being white, I grew up with a layer of privilege that black kids didn’t have. Here are just a couple of ways that privilege plays out:

I can go shopping alone, confident that I will not be followed or harassed because of the color of my skin. Not everyone can say that.

While I’m shopping, or if I’m applying for a mortgage, I don’t have to worry about my skin color working against the appearance of financial reliability on my part. Not everyone can say that.

I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group. Not everyone can say that.

When my children were young, I could arrange to protect them most of the time from people who might not like them.[i] Sadly, tragically, not all mothers can say that.

One of the most important experiences of awakening in my life was understanding the fact that being white gave me certain privileges, some tangible, some intangible. I had always taken my life experience for granted. I had always assumed that all reasonably decent people could expect the same kinds of life experiences. I was wrong. I learned that there are ways in which our lives are chosen for us, even before we are born.

And, having “privilege” doesn’t automatically make anyone a bad person. There are countless examples of people who are privileged by education, by wealth, and yes, by being white, who are wonderful, giving, loving, open-hearted people. But, as Jesus reminds us, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

The call to wake up to the damage racism has done to our sisters and brothers, is a call from God. It is part of Jesus’ commandment to us, to love God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It part of his jubilee mission to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free.  

This is not an easy call. And the child Samuel’s was called wasn’t easy, either. Here’s what comes after our passage:

Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. ~ 1 Sam. 3:11-13

This young boy has been commissioned by God to tell Eli, the gentle old man who is his mentor, that his family will be punished. Eli’s sons have been convicted of speaking of God with contempt and disrespect. As workers in God’s temple, they have violated God’s trust. This child has been given an incredibly hard task to do: to bring terrible news to the person who is his teacher, and for all practical purposes, his family.

Samuel lies there until morning, and we can imagine his dread. When Eli asks him what words God spoke to him, he makes a point of telling the boy that he must hold absolutely nothing back… which gives us a feeling that Eli already knows, or at least suspects, what God told the child. After Samuel has told all, Eli says, simply: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam. 3:18).

After being called to awaken, Samuel is called to help Eli to awaken to the hard truth about his family. It is not easy, but it is God’s work.

Tomorrow our nation celebrates the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He too was called by God to do something unimaginably hard, something that required him to attempt to awaken a nation to the harm done by laws and practices targeting its black citizens. In early 1968, just a few months before an assassin took his life, Dr. King spoke about the importance of staying awake.

One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.

As it turns out, our passage today is anything but a bedtime story, and it’s certainly no fairy tale. It is a story of God’s call to a young child that ends up being a guide to hearing God’s voice for people of all ages. It’s a story about someone who awakens to God’s word and tells the truth about it. It is about someone who is asked to do something hard, and who is given the mentoring and support he needs to be able to do it. It is about being awake—and staying awake—to what is calling us to do.

“Speak, Lord. Your servants are listening.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,”