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I Samuel 3:1-10

We are gathered here today on the eve of the holiday commemorating the life and message of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I need not speak for too long about how Dr. King is remembered now. We have all surely heard his powerful words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, in which he proclaimed a mighty dream in which this nation is transformed from a land of slavery and injustice into that beloved community where all people, regardless of color, can sit and share life together.

We read portions of his 1957 sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies” in which he proclaims, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We see the pictures of Dr. King marching with sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, and a particularly poignant picture of him standing on the same balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he was assassinated just one day later.

And we immortalize these images, those words, and that dream. We place them in stone in a memorial in Washington. We name streets and schools after him. And, of course, we have a whole day dedicated to him and his radical notions of racial justice and that beloved community.

But while we rightfully remember his words and his powerful demonstrations against anti-black racism, we often tend to forget that all of his speech and service was grounded in his faith, one that was anchored in prayer and silence. In his book entitled Strides Toward Freedom, an autobiography that details his involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956, he recounts a threatening phone call that he received one night. Here is what he wrote about the aftermath of that call:

I hung up but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.[1]

In this recollection, Dr. King echoes the story that Kate just read for us from the First Book of Samuel, a story that speaks about listening and God’s call. Samuel is a young man, by some estimates around the age of twelve. He’s sleeping in the Temple when he’s awakened by a voice: Samuel! Samuel! Thinking that it was Eli, Samuel rushes to the elder priest’s room. Eli, half-awake and surely confused, tells him just to go back to bed. This happens two more times, and Eli finally perceives that it is God who is calling out to Samuel. Wisely, he tells the young boy: Go, lie down; and if God calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

There are many voices that are calling to us, voices that seek to tell us what to believe and what to act. It’s often difficult to discern God’s voice from the noise around us, but like our story today, God is patient and keeps calling to us until we answer. At first, Samuel does not recognize God’s voice. The text tells us that he did not know the Lord, after all. But when he hears his name called for a fourth time, he stays where he is and follows Eli’s instructions: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

Though it may seem as though we are in a time like Samuel, a time in which the word of the Lord is rare, I have to believe that God is still calling to us today. Unfortunately, it seems rare that we hear our names so clearly and as unmistakable as Samuel heard his name. The voice of God often isn’t obvious and definitive like it was in the stories we read throughout the Bible. It instead seems to come in more subtle ways, those small signs in life that are easy to miss. It can be a conversation with a friend, or perhaps it’s quiet voice in the back of our heads. God’s voice may sometimes come through the voices of others throughout history and in our midst, whose words and actions speak something about the way of God. It may come through different voices, it may have different tones, and it may use words that we are not used to, but God is always speaking to us. And, as the Gospel of John reminds us, God’s words are incarnated in those who come to us from those countries and towns that we write off as “shitholes.”

In the Word made flesh, God is always calling us; calling our names. Sometimes it may be at the kitchen table, and other times it may be as we are drifting off to sleep. God speaks to us as we’re sitting on the subway, and God surely is calling our names as we’re sitting in this sanctuary today. And in these moments where we we can discern the voice of God reaching to us anew, the only thing that we can rightfully do is listen. God is speaking to us; what is God saying?

Our text today ends at verse ten, but this story could actually be extended for a few more verses. After Samuel responds, God says to him, See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. God speaks a word of judgement against Eli and his family, a word that Samuel then relays to Eli, beginning a lifelong ministry as a prophet. But before he became a prophet, before he called Israel back to the Lord, and before he anointed the first king in Israel’s history, Samuel sat in silence to listen to what God was saying to him.

As the Reverend Dr. Luke Powery of Duke University Chapel noted, God’s voice is pervasive and God speaks, revealing the theological roots of sociopolitical activity or courageous mission in the world because if God doesn’t speak, we have nothing to say. If God doesn’t speak, we have nothing to do. If God doesn’t tell you to do it, don’t do it.[2] It’s for this same reason that Dr. King centered his activism and speaking on his own prayer life. For while prayer is a way of speaking to God, it is also a vital way that we listen to God. It’s a way of sitting in silence to hear that still small voice, to notice our world in ways that we may not have noticed it before, and to encounter that person who we may other wise try to avoid. But we must not confuse this with some kind of passive action. No, to listen to God requires active attention, and it’s a form of receptivity towards God, a way of receiving the voice of God in the hopes that, in God’s word to us, we will find our own words to the world.

For though we pray and listen, there comes a moment in which we then must transform what comes in that praying and listening into language and action. There comes a moment in which we receive the Word that God has given to us and relay it to this world. Dr. King said in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in 1967 that there comes a time when we must “break the silence” and that while the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, “we must speak” because God has spoken to us.[3] It’s as the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed,

For whenever I speak, I must cry out,

    I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”

For the word of the Lord has become for me

    a reproach and derision all day long.

If I say, “I will not mention him,

    or speak any more in his name,”

then within me there is something like a burning fire

    shut up in my bones;

I am weary with holding it in,

    and I cannot.[4]

Tomorrow, we will remember one of the prophets who has come before us, speaking as the mouthpiece of God in a society marred by racism and unjust economic systems. And as we listen to Dr. King’s words, we must transform our silent listening to language and action. “And what comes out of your mouth,” Dr. Powery notes, “may even be surprising to you because a prophetic word is a word that comes from One outside of you,  but when it enters your heart it is like fire shut up in your bones and then you can’t help but speak.”[5]

My friends – speak. Boldly proclaim that Black Lives Matter. Speak out when our leaders make bigoted and racist comments, when decisions are made that strike against the spirit of justice and love. Declare that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Affirm that every single person is created in the image if God, without reservation. Speak an affirming word to our LGBTQ siblings that we have for so long locked out of our churches. Proclaim that “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Speak, for there is a fire burning within each of us.

God is still calling out to us, right here and right now. May we discern God’s voice in our midst, and may we silence any other voices to hear it. But then may we raise our voices even louder in response.

Speak, O Lord, for your servants are listening.

Amen.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strides Toward Freedom

[2] The Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, “Lessons on Listening” (Sermon, Duke University Chapel, January 18, 2015).

[3] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” (Speech, Riverside Church [NYC], April 4, 1967).

[4] Jeremiah 20:8-9 (NRSV)

[5] Powery