I entered seminary right after I graduated from college, when I was still 21 years old. And that summer I was called to my first meeting with the committee that would later decide whether or not to ordain me as a minster. I was really nervous, because I was sure I would get asked some sort of confusing theological question, or I’d be asked to recite the books of the Bible or something. I had no idea what to expect.
I the end, the meeting went well. No curveball questions. No unfair expectations. But the committee said they had one concern: I was 21 years old. Wasn’t I too young to know that I wanted to devote my life to God?
It was the last thing I expected them to question me on, because I thought a young person who wanted to serve would be greeted with open arms. I had made this decision so carefully, even throwing away my law school applications to apply to seminary. And I left the meeting approved to go forward, but feeling this sense that I wasn’t being taken seriously because I was young. It’s left an impression on me to this day.
It’s no surprise that we sometimes do not value the call that God has on young people. We all have experiences of being told we are too young, or of not being listened to. And as kids and as young adults we hate it, and we say we will never do it to others once we are in positions of power. And yet, generation after generation it happens.
And that’s why sometimes it’s good to remember that God has been known to call the unexpected to do amazing things. Today’s Scripture reading talks about a young prophet named Samuel, who one day even choose the king of Israel. At this particularly time, though, he’s still just a kid. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving Eli, one of the priests there.
One night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.”
In the United Church of Christ, the denomination that both of these churches belong to, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And then, we have to listen.
So, what does it mean to listen to God? Very few of us ever have the kind of experience that Samuel had. Most of us don’t get the literal voice of God telling us what to do. So, that means our job is a little harder. We have to seek out what God might want for us, and we have to discern, to figure out if our interpretation is right, through prayer and conversation with others.
But before we even get to that stage, we need to believe that God might indeed call us, and that God might have something big for us to do. And that might be the hardest step of all. It’s hard because most of us believe at some level that we are not worthy enough or holy enough or experienced enough for God to use. We think God will use other people, people who are saint-like or incredibly talented, to do the important work. And so, we stop listening, and we stop being available to God.
But one of the things I love about this story is that everyone who knew Samuel, this man who this boy who God talked to, would go on to do amazing things.And a big part of Samuel’s story comes from what he did when he was an adult. Having learned as a boy that God speaks to and uses the unexpected, Samuel becomes open to how God may be using others.
As an adult, Samuel is appointed by God to go and anoint the new king. And God tells Samuel that the king will come from among a man named Jesse’s sons. So Samuel goes to Jesse’s house and says, “I need to meet your sons”. And Jesse’s seven oldest sons are brought in. Now, it’s important to note that in these days seven was a very highlly valued number. Seven was the ideal number, the one that signified perfection. So when Jesse had seven sons, that was something to be especially proud of in his society.
But the thing is, Jesse also had an eighth son. David. David was the youngest, and the smallest, the unexpected one, and no one really expected much out of him. So when Samuel came to anoint the new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him into the house. They just left him out in the field to watch the sheep.
But when Samuel starts to look at Jesse’s sons, God makes it clear that none of them is the king. The first one comes, and Samuel thinks, this has to be the king. But it’s not. And then the second. And then the third. Again and again until none of David’s brothers has been chosen. And that’s when Samuel asks, “Are these all your sons?”
And Jesse tells him about David. And someone went out to the fields to get him, and as soon as Samuel sees David, he knows. This is the king.
Now, truth be told big part of why I love this story is that when I was growing up, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest of all my siblings, by far. The youngest of all my cousins. Most of tine time I was even the youngest in my class. I’ve joked that growing up I had a permanent reservation at the children’s table. And this is a quintessential youngest kid makes good story.
But the hero of the story isn’t David. Not yet. This time it’s Samuel, the man who dared to believe that God just might use the most unexpected person.
I was thinking about that yesterday. Some of us gathered first here at the church to load up a truck, and then in Manchester at an apartment downtown. We were preparing it for the arrival of the family of refugees who are arriving this week.
I thought about the story I told you last week, about how a number of people felt called to do something to welcome refugees as a church, and how we got all of those people in the same room, and they figured out exactly how to do it. I thought about what it took for them to not only listen to that call from God, but to tell others about it, and to then act on it.
There were a million reasons for that not to have happened. It would have been easy for any one of them to have said “I don’t know where to start” or “It won’t make a difference” or “It will be too hard.” And it would have been easy for this church to say “We don’t want to get involved” or “It’s too controversial”. But instead, we all listened, and we all felt like this is what God was calling us to do.
And so yesterday, a new home was established in Manchester. Furniture filled the rooms, floors were scrubbed clean, soccer balls and stuffed animals were placed on kids beds. Lots of people did a lot of hard work.
But in the midst of that, I started to think more about those kids who were going to fill those bunkbeds in those rooms. I thought about my own great-grandmother, who was born to the Irish immigrants who lived in Manchester and worked in the mills. I went home and pulled up the census records, and learned that she lived just two streets over.
I thought about the world where she grew up…one that didn’t like immigrants much, even ones like her family who were the same color and spoke the same language as the other New Hampshirites. I thought about the poverty she faced, and the struggles. And I thought about what she might think about her great-great-grandchild, who was able to go to college and grad school and pastor a church that was doing what we did yesterday. I hope she would be proud.
And I thought about those kids again, and the lives they will lead in this country. I thought about how some will dismiss them. And I thought about how God will call them to do great things anyway. I thought about how our job, as Christians and as citizens, is to pave the way for others to listen to them and embrace the gifts that they are bringing to us. Because this is more than us giving them the gift of living here…they have gifts for us too. And so will their descendants.
We are called to be Samuels in a world of doubters. We are called to listen to God’s call on our own lives, but more than that we are called to listen to God’s call on the lives of others. And them, we are called to tell others about God’s call to the least expected. We are the translators who can help the calls on others to be heard. That may be our particular work in this time and place. May we do it well, and may God’s gifts to us not be ignored.