Through this Epiphany season we’re focusing in the services and homilies on the ways in which God speaks to us and calls us to action and changes us. We’ll have some guest speakers next month, talking about issues that affect them personally and that we as people of faith are called to address.
Today I want to start by asking how we hear God, and what happens next. In what ways do you and I hear the voice of God today? And what do we do about it? How do we respond?
Both of the readings are about callings: God calling to the little boy Samuel in the temple, far back in Israel’s history, and Jesus calling some of the first disciples to follow him. I want to focus primarily on Samuel’s story. Samuel was this little boy, born to his parents Hannah and Elkanah after Hannah’s prayers to end her infertility, who had been dedicated to God and given to Eli, the priest, to be raised in the temple. Samuel is still very young, maybe six or seven, when he has this experience of hearing someone call his name at night in the temple, and thinking it must be his foster father Eli. He runs to Eli, who eventually realizes it’s God calling the child. So he tells Samuel to say next time, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
It’s a story we could all learn from: how to recognize God’s voice calling to us in our daily life, and how to respond first by listening carefully.
But it wasn’t a comfortable message that God had for Samuel. It was a message of condemnation for Eli’s family – his adult sons who were exploiting their position in the temple by sexually abusing the women who served there, and stealing the offerings the people brought. Little Samuel had to pass on the message that God was going to punish Eli’s house for this. And if you read on in the first Book of Samuel chapter 4 you’ll see what happened. Yet Samuel learned from Eli never to hold back from passing on God’s words, and as he grew up and aged he was a trusted prophet of God and acted as an honest, fair-minded judge in Israel. He didn’t speak easy words when hard ones had to be spoken, and he had the courage to challenge the people when they were heading down a bad path.
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
How do you hear God’s words? How do they wake you up and cause you to take action? I can only speak from my own experience, but I think the more personally we can share with each other, the more we’ll find we have in common.
I was about 12 when the Biafran war took place in part of what is now Nigeria. Mass starvation was one of the weapons of that war, and I remember seeing news footage of young children with stick-thin legs and grotesquely swollen bellies, dying of hunger. It absolutely shocked me. And organizations like Christian Aid and Oxfam were appealing for money to send for relief. So I went to my parents and asked if we could send all our money in the bank to save the Biafrans. When they said no, and explained that we needed money for ourselves as well, it just didn’t make sense to me. We had plenty: why couldn’t we give it away and get more? Later, when I was at university, I saw a poster whose image has never left me, and which was the means of God speaking to me again. It showed a young girl carrying her little brother, with the slogan, “My hungry brother is your brother, too.” And it woke me up to the reality that we’re all one family, no matter our skin colour or circumstances. We’re all one, and we thrive or suffer together.
I believe now that God was speaking to me in those moments about global interdependence and injustice; wealth and poverty; the atrocities of war and the imperative to stand up for the victims of injustice – big, complex things that I processed with a child’s over-simplification when I was young, but that have never left me as issues we’re called to wrestle with and respond to.
I could go on and on. And I’m sure you can think back to moments that have been awakenings of a sort to you, too. And perhaps you can name them now as experiences of hearing God’s call to you to care, to act, to live differently. L
et me give one more example. When I was serving in the Diocese of British Columbia I attended a conference that was part of the Truth and Reconciliation process, ahead of the Prime Minister’s official apology to indigenous, Meti and Inuit people for the cultural genocide of the residential schools. We heard keynote speakers with powerful messages, but it was one small comment in a workshop that jolted me and woke me up to something so painful and so important.
There were maybe a dozen of us, settlers and indigenous, in a sharing circle listening to personal stories of experiencing the residential schools. One indigenous woman sat very quietly, and when she was invited to speak she said she was nervous to, because she was afraid of white people. She was afraid of me, and the other non-indigenous people in the room, even though we were well meaning and trying to be supportive. She was afraid of us because we were white, and because white people had harmed her people so badly and for so long.
I was shocked and so saddened by that. But it woke me up to something real and true. They were God’s words to me about the damage of the past and the urgency for my people to take responsibility for listening to these voices, educating ourselves about the injustice, and moving towards healing. We call it decolonizing now, and it’s hard and painful but absolutely important.
What moments stand out for you, when you’ve been moved or saddened or challenged? If you still remember them years later, there’s a good chance they were God’s words to you. And so how are you responding? Are you letting those moments continue to change you?
It takes a lifetime, and it takes a community. We can’t do it alone. So let’s learn to hear better. Let’s say together, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Let’s have the courage for the hard words. And let’s move forward together. Amen.