Who and What is Being Called in the Night?

joan-martinThe Rev. Dr. Joan M. Martin, Ph.D., a PC(USA) Teaching Elder and William W. Rankin Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School, was a guest at our LGBTQ Inquirers and Candidates Retreat this year. She preached this sermon on the second night of our 2013 Annual Retreat. It was the second of three sermons inspired by 1 Samuel 3:1-10. Dr. Martin's sermon looks at the verses 4-7. Read the first sermon of this series by Derrick McQueen and the final sermon by the Rev. Brian Ellison.

It would be great to start of my remarks this evening with the classic introduction, “It was a dark and stormy night…” but this is not a mystery novel.  It is however, a biblical drama that occurs in the night and is a thriller of the divinely mysterious.

Night time comes for a lot us with many things calling our name; many things attempt to lay claims on us.  One such thing can be:

  • That although the news says that the economic market is slowly yet steadily improving and creating jobs, some of us or people we know have an impending sense of fear that they will have to live at home with their parents for an indefinite period of time, and may never find a job with a decent wage, income, or salary;
  • Another thing that might creep into our mind can be a vision of the future of having to work all our lives in jobs that won’t be able to afford having and raising children, and paying for their college;
  • Perhaps the night time is when that which calls our name is the dread of the gloom of unidentifiable depression and anxiety about life in general that leaves us fatigued and uncertain about how we will get through the activities of daily living;

Many of us in this room have had long nights of chronic, festering debates about what our future(s) may look like or be, especially when we have or are wrestling the questions of:

  • What really is a call?
  • Is it something that comes from within me, from within the self I think or know myself to be?
  • Is it something from God because scriptures and the church tell me God knows me better than I know myself and has a plan for my life?
  • Is it my illusion--because of all the things I have done in my life related to the church--that ministry, ordained ministry, is what I want to do with my life?
  • What do I do with all this if I am lesbian, or I am a gay man and see myself as a real queen?  How will being transgender, not transitioning yet or transitioning while under care affect my sense of God’s call?
  • Or, is this calling to ministry what my mother, like Hannah, wants me to do?

Is this what Samuel was feeling and thinking that night in the 11th Century, while lying on the floor in the temple, near the Ark of the Lord?

The first set of night terrors we understand come from the larger context in which we live.  The same can be said of Samuel’s situation, young as he was. The calling of Samuel is fraught with irony and the cloud of God’s holy anger. Ken Stone reminds us in his commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel[1] that this period is one of transition for Israel and her relation to God.  It is a political transition – in which Israel moves from the governance of a tribal confederacy like that found at the end of the Book of Judges. It is also a theological transition because the word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were rarely seen.  The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were also priests of the Lord, but were evil men (2:12ff) who had no regard for the Lord, fattening themselves first, from those who brought sacrifices and offerings to the temple for the Lord.  This God fills up the hungry (2:5) and raises up the poor and the powerless from the dust” (2:8).  Human appetite for greed destroys the lives and the livelihood of the Israelites!

Although Samuel’s situation takes place within this larger context of corrupt leadership and injustice of God’s people, he has his hands full with his own night terrors in his own room, in the temple of the Lord where the ark of the Lord was (3:3).  He Samuel hears God call, “Samuel, Samuel,” and he responds “Here I am” but runs to Eli!  Now this happens not once, but twice, and is told by Eli, finally, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” “ The passage for this evening ends, Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. I believe that we have here is not necessarily the “call” of Samuel, but a theophany of God – we don’t have a vision God as in a “sighting” of the Holy One, but now the word of the Lord is heard.  It is heard by Samuel!  Samuel, like religious functionaries in the ancient world, who sleeps in a shrine in order to serve the deity, will come to know the Lord shortly!  Before, God was silent – no word was heard because of wickedness, the people were not listening; not even the priests!  Samuel heard a calling, but did not yet know the Lord, but that had not been heard.

Early on the morning of October 10th, 1976, I awoke in a sweaty panic, hearing myself say, “Oh my God, what I have done?  How can I be lesbian and be a minister?”  I went to the eleven o’clock service in my home church, Old First Church (Presbyterian, founded in 1666, a year after Newark, NJ was founded),  and I tried to calm myself.  People came up to me and congratulated me, saying that they were looking forward to my ordination later that day.  The executive presbyter, a good friend of my parents, came and sat with us, and would join us for a late lunch in the afternoon.  My sister was going to sing an anthem, and my parents, both ruling elders, were going to present me to the congregation and to presbytery. In my head I heard, “I am still a dyke, a woman-loving woman. Does God really accept me?  About five hours later, I heard myself positively answering the constitutional questions for ordination to Word and Sacrament.  I was still scared for years… a black woman, the third black woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, a fourth generation Presbyterian on my mom’s side of the family, all these stronger women in leadership in the churches, Synod and General Assembly delegates had made me who I was; my parents had both participated in the laying on hands and later would worry, what would happen if people found out?

There are many voices competing in our heads for our attention and allegiance, and how many of us could actually say at any minute that we know God well enough, or She knows us well enough to recognize a word being spoken to us by the Lord Jesus Christ.  The one thing that I have learned over thirty-seven years as a Presbyterian minister, some of those years lived in the closet, some of those years lived openly, and some of those years lived out, is that the love of God, the grace of our redeemer, Jesus the Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, reveal themselves over and over again.

Samuel was called as a priest, but Shiloh, never recovered its holiness, but his great gift was to respond to word of the Lord, and follow a vision  that would lead Israel into a new religious and political entity, and in this he would become a judge and a prophet.

We like Samuel, live in a church that often hears the voice of God but does not recognize or know its Creator.  And we are in this room, in this chapel, because we are lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex, and cisgendered people, people of color and white people, and biracial and multiracial and multi-class people, who some way or another must deal every day of our lives with knowing deep in our hearts that “yes, God has called us into baptism, into discipleship, and perhaps into ordination (I know some of you are still discerning).”  That is our individual and collective “Samuel-like” transformation!  That is our Samuel-like transformation in a world, a society and a church that is changing, but not yet fully changed.

Yes, night time comes with many things calling our name, and we wander and we wonder, both inside ourselves and listen for that calling from God outside ourselves.   I do not believe it is a matter of either/or.  Rather, it is a call that is a “both/and.”  I want to paraphrase Frederick Buechner who reminds us that:

“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God calls us to is the place where your deepest gladness… “ (who we really are as God intends us to be) “… meets the world’s deepest need”[2] which is where God has always been, is, and will forever be.

If I think about you and me as part of the people of God, called to baptismal, full-time ministry and/or baptismal full-time ordained ministry, we are called to be more radically inclusive in the church and Christ’s world in ways it has yet to see.  Bishop Yvette Flunder shares in her book, Where the Edge Gathers[3] an appendix on “Twelve Steps: The Refuge Radical Inclusive More.”  These are my favorites from the “STEPS”, and I believe out of my own life experience and yours opening up in a new world and generation of LGBTQI, these remain our call from God who is still doing a new thing just like the Holy One did through Samuel:

  1. Radical inclusivity is and must be radical, that is fundamental and root, like the roots of a tree – at the bottom, far from where the top is.  If you do not feed the roots, trees die.
  2. Radical inclusivity values and recognizes love.  I love all African American people although I wouldn't want to spend my time with some of them and organize the world the way they want to; I love all LGBTQI people, although I don’t not need to be “married” to one or to all of them; I love all white, Anglo-Caucasian, Euro-North American people even though I surely don’t have to like all of them; and I even love all the people who hate one, two, or more of identities I am, just because I am, and will not demonize or dehumanize them in anyway while I tell truth to them and about them.
  3. Radical inclusivity recognizes the ethical principle, “Do no harm, especially in the name of God;” and lastly
  4. Radical inclusivity is intentional about creating the common good, remembering that intentions and creativity have impact and accountability.

Luckily, I love the way I am aging now and love the way you are growing and will be in our church and world.

The Lord be with you; and also with you.  Lord God, you are the God who called Hannah and Samuel, the God who called Jesus, the God who calls each of us and all of us, to the calls of faith and the calls service.  We pray that “we will hear You calling in the night, and we will hold Your people in our hearts.”[4] For Christ's sake.  AMEN.

[1] Ken Stone, “1 and 2 Samuel,” The Queer Bible Commentary, London: SCM Press, 2006, pp. 195-202.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

[3] Yvette Flunder, Where the Edge Gathers: Building A Community of Radical Inclusion, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005, Appendix.

[4] Dan Schutte, melody and lyrics, “Here I am, Lord,” (alt. “I, The Lord of Sea and Sky”), 1981, from the chorus.

 © The Reverend Dr. Joan M. Martin, Ph.D.