Listen… and Speak

logoThe Rev. Brian Ellison, Executive Director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, was a guest at our LGBTQ Inquirers and Candidates Retreat this year. He preached this sermon on the final night of our 2013 Annual Retreat. It was the conclusion of our three-sermon series inspired by 1 Samuel 3:1-10. Brian's sermon looks at the final three verses. Read the first sermon of this series by Derrick McQueen and the second by the Rev. Dr. Joan M. Martin.

Two nights ago Derrick McQueen suggested that we think of this reading as a television series, and he proceeded to preach the pilot. He drew us in but left us hanging, and it was up to Joan Martin to offer us the dramatic development—the cliffhanger that is left in that second-to-last episode of the season, where all the questions are raised but not all of them are answered.

You’d think it would be a lot easier to preach the season finale. For a storyteller, it’s much easier to resolve and redeem conflict than it is to create it or to sustain it.  It’s easier to end the story and put a bow on it … than it is to keep it going.

So to Derrick and to Joan, I say … Neener, neener. It’s my lucky day.[1]

Or it would be. It would be if this story of Samuel is what we tend to think it is. What it is a first glance. A nice tidy story, a children’s story even—who among us didn’t learn it the first time in Sunday School? Maybe a few of you who are together with me in the oppressed target group of 40+ adults, might even remember learning it on a flannelgraph.

That’s still how we think of it, at least when we strip away the Hebrew words, and Hannah’s rough time of it, and Eli’s descent into lazy leadership. It’s a kids’ story of kid-like faith. A boy with a pure heart and a naïve mind, a child with a rare gift that God alone can see. Hearing God’s voice, and understanding, and responding, and being filled with God’s truth, and going forth to live in faith. It would be a lovely sermon to end a retreat with, wouldn’t it?

If only that were the story.

I don’t own a clergy shirt. You know, one of those shirts with a white collar or a tab in front. A lot of you know my colleague Tricia Dykers Koenig who told me she owns a clergy shirt which she bought for the sole purpose of wearing to protests. I also don’t own a pair of Geneva tabs, although I think they’re ecclesiastafabulous. It’s Patrick Evans, the interim executive director of the More Light Presbyterians who reminds me that Geneva Tabbs would be his Presbydrag name if there were such a thing. (And why isn’t there?)

So in the absence of these accessories, two weeks ago on Sunday, needing to show that I was a minister, I wore a stole. This stole, in fact.[2] I saw some of you that day. It was Pride Sunday in New York City. I had the honor of preaching at First Church on Fifth Avenue and taking part with Pres Welcome in handing out water—thousands of cups of water—to thirsty parade participants. From Dykes on Bikes to firefighters to the “Gay Geeks of New York” to LGBTQ Mormons to gay rugby players. It’s an incredible day. And I can not tell you how amazing it was to approach this vast array of people, many of whom have felt every bit as excluded or hurt by the church as we have—and some much more so—to approach them wearing a stole, or to watch Mieke Vandersall or Jon Walton approach them wearing a collar—or to see others look over at the signs like the one that showed up in online news reports that said “God Made You Fabulous”—and to see the look on their faces, even in this day and age, and see their eyes get wide and a look of confusion that changed to appreciation as they took a cool cup of water and looked us in the eye and said, “Thank you. Thanks for being here. Thanks for doing this. It means a lot.”

A funny thing started happening, people would take the water and drink it and as I would be walking away, moving on to the next person, they would say “Thanks, Reverend Brian.” Or they’d call after me for another cup for someone I’d missed. “Reverend Brian. Reverend Brian.” It would startle me. Because you see, I forgot I was wearing a nametag. People I didn’t know. Voices that were unfamiliar. They were calling my name. I didn’t know them, but they knew who I was, and they knew I had something to offer. And they were calling my name.

We talked yesterday about an inner call on our lives, one that is unspoken. It is real even when it isn’t clear. It’s a call without words usually. It comes from God, of course, but also from our self, our mind, our soul as we realize and critically reflect on who we are—ESTJ or INFP, Director or Counselor, Pastor or Chaplain or Contentedly Unordained Member of the Body of Christ.

But this outer call, the one we experience when a voice calls our name—well it is often, in fact, a lot like Samuel’s “call.”[3] And it is not a children’s story. It is not neat and tidy. It is, in fact, a story in which unfamiliar voices are calling our name. They startle us. Voices that insist we have something to offer even if we don’t know them, or wish we didn’t, or know them better than we wish, or don’t know them as well as we thought.

It is the voice of a Committee on Preparation for Ministry, fraught with clueless members and bureaucratic ridiculousness.

It is the voice of a Pastor Nominating Committee, hopelessly disorganized and unsure of what it wants.

It is the voice of Ph.D. admissions committees who are paralyzed by unreasonable expectations.

It is the voice of family members who don’t get it, of partners and spouses who get it all too well.

It is the voice of strangers and friends and not one of the voices is perfect or particularly wise.

In fact, sometimes the voice that puts us in the path, the voice we must hear, is not even the one doing the calling.

You see, the version of this story that has a nice bow on it, the perfect season finale—that’s a story we brought to it, not the one that’s there. All we know about Samuel is that he’s a kid, and, in fact, he’s a kid who doesn’t get it. We do not know of Samuel that this “call” came as a result of his rich prayer life or depth of theological understanding. He has not been a star Sunday School student or endorsed by his session to begin the preparation for ministry process. There, in fact, is not much evidence of Samuel even having any faith at all. He’s a kid in the temple. There is evidence that he sleeps where in church, that he goes where he’s told, says what he’s told—told by Eli, of all people, he of the dim vision and ineffective parenting, Eli the failed priest. It is Eli’s word that serves as the call on Samuel’s life. It is from the incredibly unlikely, hopelessly untrustworthy mouth of Eli that the prophetic truth that will change Samuel’s life forever first comes.

And before Samuel will ever say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” he says to Eli “Oh, okay. I guess I’ll do that.” His answer to the call isn’t really faith or trust or wisdom or discernment or understanding – it’s a raw sort of obedience.

It is not an affirmation, but an action.

It is not a thought believed but an answer spoken.

In a day when vision is not widespread—do you know a church like that?

In a world where the Word is rarely heard—does any of this sound familiar?

The chosen one of God hears an unfamiliar voice that turns out to hold the future—if only that one will dare to answer. Dare to listen. Dare to speak and go and do.

This week has been different for each one of us. We’ve all heard things here that should make us proud, and things that should make us humble. I know that some are sitting here after these three days with new clarity and others with more confusion.  We’ve remembered our baptism—the place that every one of us was first called. And we’ve been nourished at the table, strengthened by our Savior’s offering of himself that we would have abundant life.

All of that is to say we are, like Samuel, now well-fed, well-rested, well-equipped to do the only thing needful: To Listen. And then to act.

I invite you to ask yourself if there is a voice—or more than one voice—that is calling your name?

Maybe it is God’s voice.

Maybe it is a voice that you have been hearing for a while now. Maybe you mistook it, or rejected it, or failed to believe that that particular voice had much of anything to offer.

I wonder if there is a voice like that that might be providing you the nudge to stand up and say to the great Caller of us all: Speak, for your servant is listening.

And hear the good news, sisters and brothers: As it turns out, this may be the season finale—but it isn’t the end of the series. If the retreat lasted another day, maybe you’d get to hear verse 11, when God does start to speak and Samuel does listen, the speech where God tells a young and clueless prophet: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

This is how it works, this outward calling. You and I we turn out just to be links in the chain, rungs on the ladder. Someone spoke to us and we will speak to another, we who are no less flawed and no more reliable than the one who came before us, but through us, God will speak to another and another and another. God will move the church and the world inexorably toward justice and love, toward wholeness and renewal, toward equity and peace. Not because of us, but through us. Not for us, but with us. Not claiming just part of us, but embracing and empowering every part of us. All that we have and all that we are used to change the world.

And it begins with an unfamiliar voice, inviting us to listen and then to speak. Each of us. This is the finale. But it is really the beginning.

Speak, God, for your servants are listening.

Do something with us that will make both ears of the whole world tingle.

In our listening…

Redeem our conflicts, interior and outward.

In our listening…

Sustain our stories, broken or triumphant.

In our listening and then our living…

Create in us hearts that are new,

                         and in our church and our world

nothing less than your reign.


[1] At this point during the sermon’s delivery, Joan responded—quite rightly anticipating where I was going—with something like: “This show ain’t over yet.”

[3] It’s a brightly colored Guatemalan stole, rainbow-like and festive. My former intern Scott Phillips calls it my Amazing Technicolor Dreamstole.

[3] The previous day, Joan Martin shared the exegetical observation that this is not truly a “call story” in the traditional sense, but rather a theophanic encounter.