“Speak when you’re spoken to.” Perhaps you heard that once upon a time. Maybe you’ve said it before. It’s sometimes followed by the supporting notion that “children should be seen not heard” — an idea meant to communicate respect, authority, and a clear and efficient sense of hierarchy. Of course, this familiar philosophy also assumes a couple of things: first, that a child is not a full person, and second, that adults are always the ones with the most important things to say.
But Samuel is a child as we meet him. It’s the first thing we read in our passage: “The boy, Samuel…” This hero of the Jewish-Christian faith, anointer of kings, prophet to the populace, was at first a child who heard from God. Tradition holds he’s around 12 years old in the passage we read today, but we meet him much earlier, as from his earliest days he was in the house of the Lord. He was brought there by his bold and faithful mother, Hannah, he was dedicated to God, and as chapter 2 describes, he “[grew] in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people.”
That’s a comforting notion for many of us who have brought our youngest ones to church this morning, on this “Back to School Sunday.” It’s also a “Move Up” Sunday, which means kids promote to new grades in their classes. It means some rising second graders are sitting through a sermon for the first time and right about now wondering, “Wait, how long is he going to talk?” (Kids, the answer is 18-22 minutes. You can time me and make sure. The prayer doesn’t count.) It also means some 4 yr olds are in worship for the first time, before going to Junio Church — like a certain 4 yr old from my family. When his older siblings realized this would be his first Sunday, general consensus in our household was, “Ohhhh noooo! Warner’s not ready!” Yes, the one we call “wild man” has only ever known the sanctuary as a place to run around and crawl beneath pews while waiting for his father to shake hands at the end of the service. So, I imagine this makes about as much sense as if we were all gathered in the church gym right now.
Then again, who’s ready? Who’s ever ready? Certainly, church doesn’t exist only for people who are ready. Church is not only for people who are composed, prepared, silent, or attending to all aspects of decorum.
Many of you know that from 2005-2009 I served as an Associate Pastor at Immanuel Baptist in Nashville – a loving church home that bears a lot of similarity to First Baptist Greensboro. Part of my time overlapped with Immanuel’s interim pastor, who became a good friend to me to this day, Rev. Charles Foster Johnson. Charlie is a larger than life Texas preacher who is charismatic, somewhat iconoclastic, with an engaging style and verve. Today he is the head of Pastors for Texas Children, advocating for public schools in his home state. And he and Immanuel matched about the way his suits matched his cowboy boots: bold, stylish, distinct and confident.
I remember one particular Sunday, when a church visitor and her toddler were sitting near the back of the sanctuary. The child had been making some noise through the service – cries, questions – it all was provoking some sideways glances, nervous shifting in the seats. Everyone was kind so far, but there was palpable tension. I felt it in my own shoulders. During the sermon, as Charlie strode about the pulpit, the child’s noise escalated and finally the mother very hurriedly gathered her things to leave quickly, when Charlie stopped his sermon and in his booming voice from the pulpit said, “Mama, you stay right there that baby’s a gift to this church!”
The whole room changed. I’ll never forget it. We all felt it. I think even the child sensed it. It told us something about who we are as a community, and how our ability to welcome the restless and unrestrained says something about our ability to welcome all the people of God, and the fullness of the work of God in the world.
“That child is a gift.” We know this about the children, youth, young people who grace this place of worship, who grow in stature and favor in this house of the Lord. And so Hannah believed it of her son, Samuel. Just look at the ways it proves true in this passage.
First, Samuel could hear what others could not. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” the passage describes. God was silent, at least from what most could hear.
It recalls a scene from George Bernard Shaw’s play on the life of Joan of Arc. The archbishop and King Charles are interrogating Joan of Arc, when the archbishop asks, “How do you know you are right?”
Joan answers, “My voices.”
The king interrupts: “Oh your voices, your voices. Why don’t the voices come to me? I’m the king, not you.”
Joan responds: “They do come but you do not hear them.”
Samuel was listening. And Samuel could hear, when others could not. “Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’”
Samuel could hear — and maybe not in spite of the fact he was a child, but precisely because of it. The poet Francis Thompson once wrote, “[Do you know] what it is to be a child? It is to be something very different from the [adult] of today. It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism; it is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief…” (1)
You know this. And you know even more of what it is to be a child. It’s to live with curiosity. It’s to shed inhibition. It’s to make noise freely. It’s to dance readily. It’s to ask good questions. “Daddy, where does the ocean end?” And, “Why are you wearing a work shirt, it’s Saturday?” And, “When someone dies, why do we cry?” All questions I’ve heard in the last week that reflect a kind of freedom of thought and ease of expression that might enable someone to hear when God is silent, to see when visions are few.
It’s what theologian Marcus Borg once described, telling of a young boy who was excited to welcome his baby sister. Once she came into the world, and into the home, the boy was smitten, wanting to hold her and talk to her and play with her. One day his mother came into the nursery to find him at her crib. She heard him say to his sister, “Can you tell me about God? I think I’ve almost forgotten.” (2)
Maybe you’ve forgotten. They were forgetting in Israel. Rulers and priests and all manner of important people with supposedly all the right things to say, were nonetheless forgetting. I imagine some of their names were being called, but not heard. But this boy, Samuel, with his openness, his proximity to his creator, his abundant curiosity could hear what others could not.
Which leads him to do a second thing. “He got up” the text describes, “and he went to Eli.” Once Samuel hears, he goes to someone he trusts.
Eli was not perfect. In fact, right after the text describes the rare visions at that time, it tells of Eli’s failing eyesight. He is an embodiment of the people’s own impairment. Just before our text, in Chapter 2, we learn of a string of injustices from Eli’s sons, which the priest does nothing to correct, despite the strongest urgings. The word of the Lord was rare, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Eli carries some of the blame. He can’t hear God himself, not any longer. But he helps Samuel to hear. Samuel can not recognize God’s voice on his own, so it’s Eli who first realizes that God is attempting to speak to the boy. Samuel does not know what to say, so it’s Eli who teaches Samuel the enduring words, “Here I am.” Samuel still wonders why this word has come to him, and it’s Eli who tells him later in the passage, “It is the Lord.”
Most people don’t hear God without Eli. We all need those people we can go to when we hear something we don’t understand, or when we find ourselves in a place where the way is not clear.
My friend Dr. John Roberts is a retired minister, who served with me on the board of Wake Divinity School for a couple of years, where I had the chance to benefit from his stories and wisdom. Like when he told me about a children’s sermon he gave years ago. He gathered the children around and told them the story of Lazarus. He imagined with them what it must have been like for Lazarus waking up in that tomb, still tied up in his grave clothes. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t move. To illustrate, Dr. Roberts had one willing child stand up and wrapped him in paper towels head to toe. “How’s he going to move?” He asked. “He can’t walk. Can’t run.” And the kids shouted out, “He has to hop!”
“That’s right!” he said. And then he began to teach the kids something he called the “Lazarus Hop.” It went like this. Everyone stood up. Then the organist played the theme of the Adams Family. Dananana (snap, snap). Only instead of the snap they would hop. Dananana (hop, hop)… Dananana (hop, hop)… Dananana (hop)… Dananana (hop)… Dananana (hop, hop). On and on it went, the whole sanctuary filled with the laughter of these hopping kids and plenty of adults moving in their pews, too, until the music stopped abruptly. And Dr. Roberts crouched down, “Come here, children.” In a soft voice he said, ‘”There will be times in your life when you feel bound up. You can’t see where you’re going. Maybe you can’t even move. And I want you to remember to listen for the people you can trust. I want you to remember this church is full of those people. And whatever it takes, I want you to move towards those people, even if all you can do is hop.”
Children, move to those you can trust. Church, let us move to those we can trust. And what’s more, let’s be for one another those that we can trust. There’s nomore important role for the church to play, than to help women and men and all people, children and youth and all ages, hear and discern the voice of God that calls our name.
Samuel got up and went to Eli. And our church is full of such people — Sunday School teachers, and youth leaders, and music directors, ministers, and friends who shake hands in the pews, and sit around tables midweek for a meal, and come to us when we’re grieving, and share in our joys and sorrows. People whom, when any of us is lying in the dark, we can get up and approach to learn that God is speaking still. We’re not perfect, but we are the ones that help one another to know the voice of God that calls all of our names.
Samuel went to Eli. And not only because he trusted him, but because he thought God’s voice was Eli’s voice. In other words, God’s voice sounded like Eli’s voice. Have you considered that your voice might sound like God’s voice?
It’s so important to remember as we notice the next thing Samuel does. Samuel comes to realize that he has a voice, too. He’s not merely a listener, but a speaker. Samuel comes to learn how to speak when spoken to. That is, when God has spoken to you the truth of who you are, you are to speak the same to others.
This is the message Christina shared so wonderfully with our students. It’s in the prayer we have prayed today: “Lord, speak to me… and then, let me use my voice for what is right… may I speak love to all people…” Lord, help me to speak as you have spoken to me.
And so Samuel grows to be the prophet who speaks for the Lord. He breaks the divine silence, as “Samuel’s words came to all Israel…” And all this from the boy who was lying down in the temple.
I don’t mean to idealize him. And I don’t mean to romanticize children, or the experience of childhood. In fact, in the ancient world, children were not first understood as adorable or innocent, angelic or idyllic. They were sometimes seen as a burden. They were sometimes compared to servants in the household economy. Fewer than half of children born made it to adulthood. In other words, the most salient characteristic of children in the ancient world was that they were extraordinarily vulnerable. They were among the most vulnerable in their world.
That means that God speaks to those most vulnerable. And God calls us to be a church for the most vulnerable, marginalized, overlooked or oppressed. Those that have been seen, but not heard. Those who have been treated by this world and its systems as though they are dispensable, expendable, should wait to speak, should be patient to act, should let others tell them what God is doing, what God is saying, what God is up to. They are the ones to whom the voice of God comes when others of us can’t hear. And they are the ones who come to speak the voice of God amidst a time of silence. Later in the story, one who comes well after Samuel, who is descended from the king that Samuel will anoint — that one, Jesus, declares that our ability to welcome the vulnerable, “the children,” is a direct reflection of our ability to welcome the kingdom of God in our midst.
It was a few years ago that a family had brought their young children to church for one of the first times. They’d brought them to this church, in fact. They were somewhere seated near the back, trying to occupy their children, probably wondering if everything was okay, feeling a bit uncertain. The children, meanwhile, probably just wanted to crawl beneath the pews and race laps around the aisles. In front of this family were many of our longer-termed, more experienced members, and so the family worried they were causing a disturbance as they rustled papers, or opened up a peppermint as quietly as they could (you know those ones with the wrappers that seem like they were designed to make noise in church?). They worried that the questions their children were asking would cause people to turn. But they stayed, as this went on for the whole of the service, interspersed with breaks for bathroom and water, until finally at the end, a member seated in front of them turned around. “I want you to know,” she said, “That all that noise in the service… it was just the best part of my week.”
May this be a church where anyone who has ever felt “not quite ready”… where anyone vulnerable, or overlooked or overshadowed, or forgotten, or seen and not heard… where any single one finds all of us echoing the words of that saint that day: “I’m so glad you are here. We need those voices.”
- Excerpt from the poem, “Shelley”
- The Heart of Christianity, pp. 113-114