Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. (1 Samuel 3: 9, 10)
There are many “call stories” in the Bible, and the one we heard today is ready for the stage. The characters in this scene are an aging priest named Eli, his young charge Samuel, and off stage, a voice which the audience understands to be the voice of God, though not immediately understood as such by young Samuel. From previous scenes and scenes yet to come we have Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who understands her boy to be a profound gift from God, and Eli’s two sons who are officially priests and fundamentally useless.
The setting, is night-time, and three times Samuel hears his name called. Three times, he goes to Eli, ready for whatever is needed. The first two times Eli sends him back to bed but the third time, it dawns on Eli that this might be the voice of the living God, and tells Samuel that if he is called again, he is to reply “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And that is exactly what happens.
Servant. While the interests of me, myself and I have seemed to have the upper hand on all other concerns for as long as I can remember, words like servant, service, servanthood and the harder word, servitude, seem to be from an entirely different age. When we dig down into these words, things don’t get easier, because in many instances the word translated “servant” could just as easily be rendered “slave.” The classic resource work, The Interpreter’s Dictionary Bible (4:291) states that a servant is “a person of either sex who is in the service of a master. He [or she] is under obligation to obey, to work for the benefit of his/her master. S/he usually receives some protection in return. There are both voluntary and involuntary servants. There are native and foreign-born slaves…[and] the terminology of the Bible does not consistently distinguish ‘servant’ from ‘slave’. The specific Hebrew word used in the story of Samuel, ‘ebad, is often used either for a slave, or for a boy who an attendant to or follower of his master.
With that: back to our story. There is a message for Samuel, Eli’s young charge at the Temple, and the content of what will be asked of the child has not yet been revealed to him or to Eli or to the audience. Without knowing the content of what will be asked of him, Samuel says yes. As God’s servant, he is ready.
Professor Roger Nam makes a subtle but sage point here, in noting that the first three times that young Samuel replies, he starts, “Here I am” but the fourth time he replies with readiness: “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” The reply moves from one focused on Samuel’s presence – his “is-ness” if you will – to the service that is to be offered. He is ready for whatever he, in servanthood, can do to fulfill whatever it is that God needs of him.
Repeatedly, as people of faith, as children of God, as disciples of Christ Jesus, we are called by God. Sometimes the calling will be closely related to things that we do well or things we like to do, while other times the calling is to tasks that we feel ill-prepared to do, or perhaps even hard or dangerous ones. Sometimes it is a long-lasting calling, such as a calling to a specific vocation, but it may just as easily be a calling to do something time limited: right here, right now. Unsure of what type or duration this holy request might require of him, Samuel’s pledge is true: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Though the call stories in scripture are most often to an individual, like Isaiah or Mary, or to a couple like Sarai and Abram, calls can also be issued to a community. “Mission statements” or “Vision statements” are in essence, a pledge to a particular type of service in response to the Call of God. To expand slightly our understanding of the gospel reading we explored two Sundays ago, the two-fold great commandment, we are called to love and serve God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love and serve our neighbours as ourselves, and with the considered words of our Mission Statements we, as communities of faith, state our intent to serve. At the end of this sermon I will post the Mission Statement of Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, which was already a few years old when I arrived in 2012, and the newly revised Affirming-and-Mission Statement of Rundle Memorial United Church, for you to ponder what we understand our calling to be in these communities… and in addition to those local commitments, I want to introduce something pretty much brand-new.
At the end of October, the United Church General Council met to consider a new mission and new vision, words that we hope will open us to God’s new horizons over the next decade. Through a process of sharing, listening, testing, then sharing again, and so on, in workshops and listening circles, we attempted to prayerfully discern what the voice of God is now saying to this denomination. This new mission statement goes like this:
“Called by God, as disciples of Jesus,
The United Church of Canada seeks to be a
bold, connected evolving Church
of diverse, courageous, hope-filled communities,
united in deep spirituality, inspiring worship, and daring justice”.
The new Vision statement lifts up that last line:
“deep spirituality, inspiring worship, and daring justice.”
Yes, it does sound like it has gone through a few rounds of committee work, with perhaps even a bit of marketing magic around the edges, but as one of the participants in the May 2020 consultation I can attest to the skilled listening, testing and synthesizing of those charged with leading the process. (There were roughly 1,000 participants involved in the various consultations). But more than viewing it from a procedural standpoint, what do we see here that reflects what it means to listen for the call of God, and respond in servant love?
There are words here that imply movement in a particular direction: call, seek, connect, evolve, unite, inspire, dare. It’s really hard to serve and be static at the same time; ask any of the hundreds/thousands of workers in the “service industry” of the Bow Valley how long they would remain gainfully employed if they were to be sitting around, unresponsive to emerging needs. To my mind, the two most important words here might be “dare” and “evolve.” Especially after twenty months of pandemic limitations, risk-taking seems like a far-off skill, yet we as Church are called to try new ways of being, new ways of looking and listening and responding, and we expect that some of those risky responses are going to be duds. We don’t want to admit it but we know that few hits arrive without some great big misses. But in addition to being daring, even bold in our desire to serve, we must also trust God enough to let ourselves be malleable, nimble, changing and evolving as the needs around us change. We’ve had to use some of these skills for the past twenty months, and new modes will need to appear or evolve if fresh relevance is to be found in the 2020s and 2030s.
There are also words in this new mission that are what I would call, “identity” words: disciples, bold, diverse, courageous, hope-filled, deeply spiritual. These, too, imply motion of some sort – perhaps we envision the first disciples who walked with Jesus, and imagine how we too could be bold in proclaiming justice, deep in our spiritual rootedness, energized by hope. As you imagine the community you live in, and the community of faith in which you participate, how might these qualities of being Church make a difference in people’s lives? How might the love of Christ be enacted? Who will be served, how, and by whom?
And there are foundational words here: God, Jesus, Church, justice. As Church we are perpetually called to go deep in spirit, to spend time with God’s presence within us and around us and between us, in contemplation and study and prayer and in listening for God’s holy whispers. As Church we see Jesus ahead of us on the path, or sometimes beside us, or at times behind us, urging us along, in the sometimes unclear, often nerve-wracking world of justice-seeking.
So what will we make of these words – or what will they make of us? Some of these words will be easier than others, some will be more authentic than others. Sometimes they will call us to deep, persistent, local action and sometimes they will call congregations to find partners – local, regional, ecumenical, national, global. Some of these words will call beyond our usual selves and others will draw on strengths that are just waiting to be used in the service of our neighbour and the service of our God.
In my life, I yearn for the voice of God, whispering what I am to do next in this place, awakening a calling that may be familiar or may be very unfamiliar.
In our life as Rundle and Ralph Connor, we yearn to discover paths of service, with our hands and our feet, our thoughts and our actions, our kindness and our courage, reaching out once more, tangibly, as called disciples of Jesus.
In our great big hopes as a national Christian denomination, we seek the grace to move in a Godward direction, as lovers of life, students of the Word, servants of the world in all its beauty and all its neediness.
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.
“Servant”, in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962. Volume 4, page 291.
United Church of Canada, General Council 43. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIgYSV8BVUE from 2 hours 25 minutes to about 2:38
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church