I don’t know about you, but if someone called out my name in the middle of the night, my response would not be “Here I am!” If someone called a second time, I might yell back. If they called a third time, I would throw something. Never would my response be “Here I am,” and definitely never would I listen calmly and coolly if someone told me the voice I was hearing was actually that of God.
Then again, I am not Samuel. I am not a prophet, not a leader of a nation as Samuel would become. But I am a beloved child of God, and I am called. And you are too.
It was in college that I first starting hearing people talk about the idea of vocation, of a call. It’s when I first heard a quote from Frederich Buechner that has always stuck with me. He says, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is a pretty cool concept, but it is not one that I think many people consider when job searching. Sure, some people hope that their work benefits a section of the world. Others put a premium on finding work that brings them great joy. But in my experience, by and large, people focus on a job over a vocation, on work over a calling. That’s kind of what I did. I began my post-college career as a Youth Minister at a big Episcopal church. I thought, “this is great – I like church a lot, I enjoy talking about religion, and I love working with middle and high school students. Maybe this is what Buechner was talking about.” I did that for a time, and then decided I wanted to get out of the church business and try the nonprofit world in DC, where I’d always wanted to live. Fast forward a few years, and there I was, sitting at my desk at a big organization in northern Virginia, doing just what I thought was right, and I felt totally unfulfilled.
That’s when I started to consider that maybe the “calling” thing was real. I was spending more time at my church in Alexandria: taking and leading adult formation classes, getting to know the clergy, and volunteering with the youth group. I even signed up for a few classes at the Episcopal Seminary up the road from my house just to see what that was like, all the while sure that God was not calling me to the priesthood. Looking back now, I realize that I was just closing my ears and my mind to the possibility that God was calling me. Unlike Samuel, I was staying tucked in bed, holding the pillow over my head and hoping that God would give up and call someone else.
Our Christian faith is a calling. The Catechism, in the back of our Prayer Book, tells us how to live out our Christian lives. We are to follow Christ, to come together for corporate worship each week, and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God. We are all called to minister to others: to bear witness to Christ and to use our gifts to carry out God’s work of reconciliation in the world. We are called to support the mission of God’s Church which is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Whether we want to claim these callings or not doesn’t matter. These are requirements of our Christian identity! When spelled out like this, the Christian call sounds daunting. Even impossible. But maybe that’s because we aren’t really watching or listening for God’s call. I think that perhaps God places people and things in our paths to direct us toward a certain set of behavior. God helps us in God’s own call for us.
Let’s look at Samuel: his mother Hannah was the second wife of a man named Elkanah, and was believed to be barren. She was distraught and prayed to God, vowing that if God blessed her with a child, she would raise him as a “nazirite,” meaning one separated, or consecrated. She would raise him to be holy. Eli, the priest, sees Hannah upset and praying and, after determining that she is not drunk or crazy, blesses her. Hannah conceives and bears her son, Samuel. When he is a young child, she takes him to live with Eli near the temple so that he can serve God all his life. We know from today’s reading that Samuel was a prophet; he was called as a young boy – literally called out to in the middle of the night. But perhaps Hannah played a role in Samuel’s call. She raised him from his birth to serve the Lord. His very life came to be from her fervent, desperate prayers to God. Her confidence and faith in God to listen to her is what made Samuel’s life possible.
Our calls will not always come to us as dramatically or as obviously as with Samuel. More often we will need to closely examine the people and events around us to see how God might be trying to communicate with us. That is how my personal call to the priesthood came: not with God saying “Winnie, go be a priest in my Church,” but through a series of small moments, experiences, and relationships, which I now recognize were all being devised and directed by God to lead me here. Maybe some of you have been let go from a job, or been forced to relocate to a new place. Maybe what at first seemed daunting and awful turned out to be positive: your eyes were opened up to a new adventure, you met people you otherwise would never have known and they had a great influence on your life. Maybe those pivots and changes allowed you to think about things differently and to use your life to serve God and people in a new way. If any of this sounds familiar, I’m pretty sure God has called you too. Our lives’ paths are rarely predictable, but God is there along the way – we just have to remember to stop, listen, and watch to determine where God might be leading us.
Now I cannot let this weekend and this sermon pass without making note that on Monday we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. I don’t need to remind you of King’s significance. He has been called a prophet and a modern-day saint. The Episcopal Church commemorates and honors him each April in our church calendar. He is someone I have long assumed God spoke to, directly. I would have guessed that King had an experience like Samuel did. He heard God’s voice, loud and clear. So I was surprised to learn that King’s call was – in his words – “neither dramatic nor spectacular.” It was not a sudden strong change of heart, rather “it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon [him].” He wrote, “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.” How remarkable that a man who would change the course of American history, who would lead millions peacefully towards cultural shifts for an entire country, who would die for the cause he believed in, felt merely a nudge and an intuition that God was calling him to this work? Imagine if King had ignored that gradual urge. The world might be a very different place.
We won’t all be Martin Luther King, Jrs, won’t all be Samuels. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a plan for us. God wants us to find our vocation – to answer our call to do what we deeply desire and what the world deeply longs for. So be on the lookout for the unexpected twists and turns in your lives, and try to embrace them. It is on these unfamiliar journeys that we are often able to truly meet and serve the Divine.