Listening for God
(1 Samuel 3:1-20) By Rev. Rick King—On this Martin Luther King weekend, we celebrate the “I Have a Dream” speech and give thanks to God for King’s leadership, and the moral courage he gave to the civil rights movement. But as with most things, the story is much deeper and more nuanced than that speech or even the public witness of King and the movement. We place King and others on a pedestal, and think of them as heroes who are vastly different from us; but times and circumstances, more than talent and heroism account for people like King who become agents for social change.
Listening for God can be hard in the midst of all that’s going on in our lives. Often, we think of the key to effectively listening for God is a matter of getting quiet and still enough, so we see the “noise” in our lives as the problem to be solved.
But just as often, we don’t have a God-hearing problem, so much as a choosing-what-voice-to-listen-to problem. Thankfully today, on this MLK weekend, we have in the story of Samuel something that speaks to listening and acting with courage. And that’s important, because more than seven years before the speech at the March on Washington, Martin Luther King had what has come to be called his “Kitchen Table Epiphany.” It was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks had just been hauled to the police precinct for refusing to move to the back of the bus. And King had emerged as the confident new leader of the movement against racism and violence in a spirit of confident, public nonviolence.
But inside, King was feeling thrust into a position of leadership he didn’t feel equipped to handle. He had agreed to lead the boycott, which people assumed would last only a few days and be a symbolic victory. But instead, it stretched over 381 days, and white Montgomery, AL, began to see an economic impact on the horizon. It was then that the death threats began: “Call off the boycott or die.” The calls to King’s house eventually came daily—as many as forty a day. There was one time, when the police had jailed him for speeding, that King imagined himself on the threshold of being lynched. Fear settled in on him like nightfall.
But King’s life and ministry was shaped and informed by the biblical stories, stories just like the one we heard today about Samuel. These stories tell of people in all states of emotion in response to events in their lives: joy, praise, fear, desolation, community, decision, abandonment. The psalms alone run the gamut, from the darkness and isolation of Psalm 88, to the palpable, inescapable sense of God’s presence in Psalm 139, which we heard echoes of in our Call to Worship.
The psalms illustrate the dance with God of people of faith, as life experience rises and falls and God seems one moment as close to us as breathing, and the next, as distant as the farthest star. It helps to know that, wherever you and I find ourselves in relationship to God, others have been there before us.
The story of the call of the boy Samuel to be Israel’s first prophet runs the gamut, too. We like to focus on the first half of the story, which has Samuel seeking wisdom from the wise elder, Eli, who has served long in the temple and has been entrusted by Samuel’s mother, Hannah, with schooling and forming young Samuel in the ways of the Torah and the priesthood.
What we find out in the second half of the story paints a more human, but much less heroic, picture of Eli, and gets at the ambivalence and anxiety Samuel experiences as he comes of age as a prophet and immediately has to deliver bad news to his mentor. The second half of our reading from 1 Samuel today tells “the rest of the story” of how Eli fell down as a parent when his sons, Hophni and Phineas, had turned the Temple into a brothel, and Eli had said or done little or nothing to correct them. And Samuel’s first prophecy after he wakes up to the fact that the voice that keeps calling to him in the night is the voice of God—is nothing less than judgment against the house of Eli and his sons as punishment for what the sons had done and what the father had failed to do.
Samuel was afraid to deliver the news; Eli, to his credit, urges Samuel not to old back but to relay every word to him, no matter how hard that is. Eventually, Samuel became the heroic prophet who anointed David king of the Jews—and also later called David on the carpet when he did wrong. But I believe it not only started with God’s spirit given to the prophet, but with Eli’s modeling of how to listen to God with courage and openness, and take brave action, even when it seems too little, too late.
Now, back to Martin: King’s fear reached its low point late on a Friday night, January 27, 1956. King had come home tired after another long strategy meeting, and Coretta was asleep. As he paced the house, still keyed up and on edge, the phone rang, and the voice on the other end threatened: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” As King hung up the phone, the fear welled up inside of him. He walked into the kitchen, put on a pot of coffee and sat down at the table.
For all his faith, King was not a person given to personal testimony about his inner life. But in a rare moment of openness, he described what happened next. “I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’
“At that moment,” King says, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. I t seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Three days later, a bomb blasted his house, and his family narrowly escaped. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
News of the bombing drew a crowd. A mob supportive of King formed within the hour, all clenched jaws and closed fists. And they pressed up against the shattered house and shouted for vengeance. King mounted the broken porch and raised his hands. “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with this movement. Go home with this glorious faith and radiant assurance.” And thus, the mob dissipated, their mood disarmed and their ears ringing with the message of gospel nonviolence.
Some eleven years later, King spoke before an audience of his epiphany in the kitchen. “It seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.” (Adapted from John Dear, “The God at Dr. King’s Kitchen Table,” National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2007)
There is power simply in being known—but also in knowing others before us have been through much worse tests of courage than we have, and have not only survived, but grown in courage. To know, as Psalm 139 describes, that there is no place we can go and not have God with us, is not only comforting, but empowering. To know that even a prophet like Samuel felt squeamish about delivering bad news to his mentor, yet grew up to be a lion of God’s Word, even to a king like David, can be an encouragement to you and me to look at a complicated, scary situation and find the courage to say or do the next right thing. God does not promise to take away misfortune from our lives or protect us from harm, or even promise us freedom from fear. What God does promise is never to abandon us, never to run away, but to always be Presence, Peace, and Power so that we can face with courage whatever comes.
No matter what you or I are facing today, no matter what we find ourselves in the midst of, the God who knows us intimately is there—as God has been there for countless other people of faith. And because God is there, we, too, can be there, and choose to listen, and stand—in the face of fear, or sadness, or harm—and act in obedience to God’s will. AMEN.