Harrowing Of Hell
January 14, 2024

Listening to God’s Call

The Rev. Kate Wesch

To watch the sermon click here.

Jesus, make of me what you will make of me; while you be what I love. Amen.

Good morning, Epiphany! It is so good to be with you. I haven’t been in this pulpit in about seven years and yet, it feels as if it was yesterday. I have so many wonderful memories from my time as your Associate Priest. At Epiphany, Joel and I found a spiritual home for our young family. Both of our sons were baptized here as infants and in many ways this will always be home. I could go on at great length about all of the ministries, small groups, eucharists, funerals, and baptisms – Holy Weeks and Easters, Christmas pageants, coffee hours, and receptions we experienced together, but that is not our focus today.

Today, we are going to talk about call. What is a calling? How and why does God call us? How does it develop? And what do we do with it – especially when it’s inconvenient or messy?

The first reading today is from 1 Samuel. If you recall, the book of Samuel tells us of the age in which Israel was moving from the period of judges into the age of kings. As the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, following the years of slavery in Egypt and before the Babylonian exile, they were struggling.

God was pretty straight forward – worship God alone, keep the covenant, and treat people with justice. But they just didn’t listen. They continued worshipping false gods, they broke the terms of the covenant, and they acted with impunity.

In the midst of all of this, a young woman named Hannah found herself barren. As we have learned in our Year with the Bible conversations, when a woman is barren in Hebrew Scriptures, pay attention! For something important is coming. And indeed, after much prayer and longing, Hannah and her husband Elkanah bear a child and he is named Samuel.

When the child is weaned, they take Samuel to the temple where they slaughter a bull as an offering of thanksgiving. While they are still in the temple praying, Hannah says, “For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” And with that, Hannah and Elkanah left their young son in the temple.

This is the backstory and provides context for our story today. The boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the temple under the supervision of the old priest, Eli. Curiously, the narrator tells us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

When we think “Old Testament,” we often conjure up images of God speaking from the clouds, God communicating with people through the elements,  like fire in a bush, or the waters of a stream parting. But if you really pay attention, you’ll notice a pattern. While God speaks often and directly to people in Genesis, this direct style of communication slowly begins to fade. By Exodus, God is communicating through fire and water. And by the time of the New Testament, people experience God most often through the Holy Spirit. So, when our narrator tells us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” it is true.

Imagine with me – Eli, the old priest who is going blind and the boy Samuel. They are in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant, the holy of holies.  Eli is lying down in a room nearby. If this altar was the holy of holies, Eli would be sleeping in the sacristy. And Samuel would be stretched out in the choir seats.

The Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said: “Here I am!” Samuel thought Eli was calling and needed something, so he ran to Eli’s side. But it was not Eli calling and he sent Samuel back to bed. This scene repeats itself three times, and the third time, Eli understands. Eli tells Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you should say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does just as Eli instructed and with this, Samuel receives God’s call.

Can you think of a time in which God has called you? How do you know? What does it feel like? Is it difficult to distinguish between God’s call and your own ambition? The thing about calling is that it always requires courage because it is always a deviation from a path. Samuel’s call was risky.

When I accepted a call to be the rector of St. John the Baptist and left Epiphany, it was risky. And when I accepted a call to serve as rector of St. John’s in Essex, CT, moving my family 3,000 miles in the middle of a pandemic, it was risky.  I’m sure each of you can remember a time in which you felt that gentle nudge, that insistent pulling and prodding towards something new, something daring.

Responding to God’s calling requires not only courage, but trust. You have to trust that God has you as you step into the unknown. These topics are nothing new – they are as old as time.

In 1959, Joan Thatcher, publicity director of the American Baptist Convention, asked Dr. Martin Luther King to compose a statement reflecting on his calling to the ministry more than a decade prior. In her request, Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called.”

In response, Dr. King wrote this: “My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.”

As we remember Dr. King this weekend, it is interesting to reflect on his calling. Even after he because a powerful preacher and pastor, he continued to listen for God. Numerous articles refer to Dr. King as a reluctant leader. It took a council of elders to convince him to go to Montgomery, and from there he kept taking the next faithful step, and the next faithful step in God’s calling upon his life.

It was similar with Samuel. As the narrator tells us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” The Lord hadn’t been revealed to Samuel before that night. He was lying in front of the ark in the Holy of Holies and still doubted the voice of God.

How often do we hear the voice of God and ignore or explain it away? What are the self-inflicted stumbling blocks we erect out of fear or doubt? When summoning the courage to answer God’s call, it usually requires the affirmation of others in addition to our own trust and faithfulness. Part of our responsibility as Christians, in addition to listening to God in our own lives, includes putting others in the way of God. How can you offer affirmation to others about what you see God doing in their lives?      

When we reflect on this weighty topic, it’s easy to think of the big ones.This community has affirmed the callings of several people to ordained ministry in recent years. You raised up Charissa Bradstreet, Elizabeth Walker, Vince Booth, Tamara Lamb, and Lisa Ozaeta.  But God’s calling is definitely NOT only for ordained ministry.

God’s calling upon our lives happens to every single one of us –  in the big things and the little seemingly insignificant costs that do matter. How do you treat your family members? In what ways do you share out of your abundance? How do you allocate your time and share your gifts and skills with the world?

My friends at Epiphany, never stop listening for the voice of God in your lives. For you might be lying in front of the Holy of Holies, or sitting on I-5 in traffic, or picking up the phone when a friend calls, and you never know… Be of good courage and be willing to take that risk. God has you.