Sermon delivered Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 19, 1997 at Fellowship Congregational Church, UCC, Tulsa, Okla.
This past week I wrote to the Confirmation Class and members of the youth groups inviting them to a weekend retreat, the purpose of which will be to learn a number of prayer disciplines. Our leader will be the Rev. Clyde Glandon, Episcopal priest and Director of the Center for Counseling and Education. The assumption of this program is that the most important resource we can give our young people — a resource they can draw on to help them make their way through a turbulent world — is learning how to pray.
The name of the program — “Young Samuel, a Christian Vision Quest” — is taken from this morning’s first reading. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had been unable to have children. The birth of little Samuel was an answer to prayer. In gratitude Hannah presents Samuel to the service of God at the temple in Shiloh, then under the care of the priest Eli and his disappointingly, decadent sons. Our reading picks up the story in chapter three. Jewish tradition speaks of Samuel’s age at this time as twelve, roughly the age of bar mitzvah, the passage from childhood to manhood. It is night. Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim, is lying down in his room, and Samuel in the temple where the ark of God was. The lamp, which burned all night, had not gone out, we are told, and Samuel hears his name called. He goes quickly to Eli, but Eli tells him it was not he who called. Samuel returns to the temple and lays down, but again he hears his name, “Samuel!” Again he goes to Eli, who again tells him that he did not call. A third time it happens, but this time Eli recognizes what is going on, that it is the Lord who is calling Samuel. He instructs the boy to lie down. “And if he calls again, you are to say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'”
The fundamental conviction of the Bible is that God speaks. “In the beginning was the word. . .” And the Word continues to go out. God is not speechless. God communicates. God’s word can be heard. Prophets and religious teachers from the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions all have this one thing in common: They heard God speak. They heard something that came from outside them, though they heard it inside them. It was a word not their own. It was a word that addressed them. God’s voice, like a radio frequency, can be tuned into. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
It is one thing to believe that God exists. It is quite another thing to listen to God. It is what is meant by the word “obedience.” The root of the word “obey” is “to listen.” If God speaks, then what is required of those who believe in God is to listen to God. To obey is to be attentive to a word not our own, to be attentive to a word that addresses us, that speaks our name. It is the voice or word of God, a voice which is both outside us yet within us. What biblical faith declares is not just that there is a God who created the world, but that the God who created the world seeks to communicate with us. At the heart of the universe is One who cares about us and seeks to speak with us. The significance of Jesus for the Christian is that God’s living word became a person. In Jesus God addresses us personally.
In contrast to the word obedience, which means listening or attentiveness, is the word “absurd”, which literally means “to be deaf”. An absurd life is one incapable of hearing. The absurd is what is meaningless. Meaning exists only where people hear, where people make connections. Meaning depends upon listening. Meaning requires paying attention. An absurd life is deaf to the music of the universe. An absurd life cannot hear itself addressed, and so it exists in isolation.
Well, if God speaks, why don’t we hear? Apparently we are not the only ones who have trouble hearing God speak, as the lesson begins, “Now the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” I find that comforting. We are not the only people who have trouble hearing.
Why is it that we do not hear God speak to us? I believe it is because we do not listen. The evidence I put forward for that assertion is that we do not listen very well to one another. Is there any husband here this morning whose wife has not said to him, “You’re not listening to me.” I confess to having heard those words — on occasion. Listening to another require paying attention to that person. It requires acting as though what the other is saying is more important than anything else you have to do at the moment.
I also confess to the practice, when another is talking, to be thinking about what I am going to say in response. Have any of you ever done this? When we do this, that is, when we formulate our own response while another is speaking, we have taken our attention away from the other, assuming that what we have to say is more important than what the other has to say. In many different ways we tune one another out. Listening requires paying attention to the other. And listening requires believing that the other is important enough to pay attention to.
Have you ever practiced active listening? Active listening is repeating in your own words what the other has just said, giving the other an opportunity to confirm or correct that what you heard was what was meant. Listening requires effort. Listening is engaging another on an intimate basis.
My argument is that if we do not listen very well to one another, it is not surprising that we do not hear God. My argument, further, is that just as listening to another requires paying attention to the other, so it is in listening to God. We have to believe that God is important enough, and that what God has to say is important enough, to spend some time with God, to being quiet in God’s presence, so we can hear. Our culture is too noisy and too visual for us to hear that Word that can only be heard in silence and in the depths of the human soul.
So prayer is first of all listening. Prayer is being silent and waiting for God to be heard. We tend to think of prayer as speaking to God, and pouring out our heart to God is certainly an important part of prayer. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that what we have to say is more important than what God has to say. After all, it is God who is the center of the universe. It is not we who are the center. Prayer begins with listening to the divine voice, the voice that calls all creation into being, the voice which is life itself. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Go back to the story. We are not told that Samuel was asleep when he heard his name called, but that is a possibility. There are a number of stories in the Bible about God speaking to a person through his or her dreams. When we are awake, we are usually too preoccupied to hear the primordial Word. In dream consciousness we are open to hearing and seeing in a different way from normal consciousness.
But there is another possibility. Samuel may have been in a state in between being awake and asleep. This is that mode of consciousness called a meditative state. In this state one is awake and alert but fully relaxed. All the major religious traditions teach a variety of techniques by which one enters this mode of consciousness. Meditation is simply putting oneself in a position whereby one can hear one’s own soul, which is the organ through which we hear God speak. You have to put yourself in a position to hear before you can hear. Like any kind of listening, meditation is a way of paying attention.
There is no one way to meditate. I believe the forms meditation may take vary from gardening to jogging, in addition to the classical disciplines. What is important is that one becomes quiet inside. It’s not the noise around you but the noise in you that keeps you from hearing the music of the universe. “When I am still is when I hear the quiet voice.” This is the state of consciousness in which one can truly say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Obviously, not every voice we hear is the voice of God. There are all manner of inner voices just as there are many different kinds of outside voices. How we distinguish these voices is the issue George Bernard Shaw explored in his play St. Joan. It is the story of a young woman, Joan of Arc, who rallied the French against their English overlords. In the play there is a wonderful dialogue between Joan and the prosecuting attorney. Standing before an all male jury, Joan says: “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.” The prosecutor says: “They come from your imagination.” Joan replies: “Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.”
Do not be afraid of your imagination. It’s the source of your creativity. God speaks to you through your imagination. What Joan heard was God calling her to courage in the cause of freedom. It was a similar message that Martin Luther King heard, when, at the age of 26, God told him to lead the Montgomery bus boycott and begin the long journey of black people in this country toward freedom. But it was a different message a young woman heard, as reported in the Tulsa World this week. The story was about the mother who left her newborn baby on a Wal-Mart shelf. The woman was quoted in the paper saying, “It was like a voice just told me I should leave her there.”
So how do you know what is the voice of God? How do you distinguish God’s voice from the others we may hear? Samuel couldn’t tell at first. He heard his name being called, but he did not know it was the Lord, because, as the text reads, “He did not yet know the Lord.” It is Eli who instructs him. We all need an Eli, a mentor, someone we can trust, who will help us evaluate the voices we hear. We all need another person, sometimes called a spiritual director, someone, who, having heard God’s voice him or herself, will help us distinguish the divine from the other contents of our subconscious.
The woman who left her baby on the Wal-Mart shelf panicked. She had no one to turn to. She herself was abandoned, and so in desperation she acted on the first voice that seemed to offer a solution. We all need someone to talk to about the voices we hear. They do not all come from God. Parenthetically, I find it both interesting and heartening that while Eli may have failed with his own sons, he succeeds with Samuel. Eli plays a crucial role in helping Samuel become the man he was to become. He teaches Samuel to listen for and identify the voice of God.
Because the message is strange is, in itself, no mark against it. Messages from God have a tendency of directing us to where we do not want to go. And our response is likely to be, “Here am I, Lord, send someone else.” To be open to hearing the voice of God is to be open to a new direction for your life.
Your assignment this week. Take a few moments each day to spend with God. Relax. Breathe from your abdomen, in, out. Breathe in the Spirit of God. Exhale that Spirit in peace and love toward all. Thoughts will enter your consciousness. Acknowledge them and let them go. What remains is God. Take just a few minutes each day to be still and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
A leader in the Tulsa, Okla., interfaith community for more than three decades, Rev. Russell L. Bennett served as minister of Fellowship Congregational Church, the first mainline church in northeastern Oklahoma to openly welcome gay men and lesbians, for 36 years until his retirement in 2004. He helped found the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance in the 1980s and served as its president until 2006. A native of Los Angeles, he was raised in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which merged in 1957 with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ. He earned a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. His book You Are God’s Beloved Child contains writings from his years of ministry.