Samuel was the hinge that joined two sides of Israel’s history. After Moses died, Joshua took over. He and Moses were king, judge, general, and chief rabbi all rolled into one. But when Joshua was dying, there wasn’t an obvious replacement, so he divided the whole group of Israel into twelve tribes, and each one had its own leader. For the next three centuries, there were fifteen men called ‘Judges’, who acted like generals or prophets, but although the tribes helped each other out here and there, there wasn’t a united Israel, or a king to lead them.
Eli was the last of the Judges, and his sons were set to continue the priestly line. But they didn’t care about their priestly duties to the people, and they acted with contempt towards God. In those days, people would bring animals to be sacrificed as either a sin offering, an offering of thanksgiving, or a form of worship. The priests could take part of the meat, as payment for their services, but Eli’s adult sons were stealing all the best parts. Worse yet, when a temple authority challenged them, they said if he didn’t hand it over, they’d take it by force. They also were taking advantage of young women who served at the temple/tent of meeting, and sleeping with them. These were serious sins in ancient Israel.
So, God called Samuel. It’s easy to hear this story and think that God was punishing Eli and his sons. That’s how people have interpreted it for a long time. People tended to look back at hard times, and think, “We must have deserved this punishment from God.” They interpreted negative experiences that way, and many still do. People will talk about something awful that happens to someone and say, “She was such a good person. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.” That’s right. She probably didn’t. But people want to make sense of their lives and the lives of others, so for years, people have interpreted bad experiences as God punishing them.
But we could just as easily say that this ‘tribal Judge’ system wasn’t working too well, and it was time for a change. Samuel ushered in the change. He grew up and anointed Saul to be king, then David after that. Samuel was the hinge between the chaotic time of the Judges and the time of the Kings.
Today, we heard the story of God calling Samuel. It made me think of a famous Episcopalian priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, who wrote about trying to figure out her ‘calling.’ Ever since she was little, she thought God had a special purpose in mind for her, and if she could only discover what it was, life would be perfect. She ended up going to seminary, and loved everything about it, but she still didn’t have a great sense of God’s purpose, and it seemed like everyone else did. A lot of the other students would talk about God “calling” them. It enabled them to be clear about their direction, and probably made them feel important.
Barbara started seriously praying about it. She tried praying before bed, and in the chapel, and finally found the perfect spot. She would climb up and sit at the top of the fire escape. She liked it, because no one could see or hear her, and she could say whatever she wanted. For weeks, she’d go up there at night, and ask and ask to know God’s special plan for her. She said,
“Then one night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, “Anything that pleases you.” “What?” I said, ”What kind of an answer is that?” “Do anything that pleases you,” the voice in my head said again, “and belong to me.” (An Altar In the World, pg. 110 Barbara Brown Taylor)
That’s it. God doesn’t necessarily plan out every detail of our lives from start to finish. God gives us the purpose, the importance, the love, and says, “Go! Go, do what you want! Make your own choices, enjoy life, live it 100% and know that you are loved!”
That’s why I love Psalm 139. “It was you who formed my innermost parts, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. Where shall I go to escape your spirit? Where could I go where you are not with me? If I fly to the heavens, you are there, or westward across the sea, even there your hand is leading me, even there, your hand is holding me.”
It doesn’t matter what we do. It doesn’t matter what job we have. I was listening to a talk the other day, and the speaker quoted an old poem, saying, “Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief… I’ve known happy ones, and I’ve known sad ones.” It doesn’t matter what your job is, or if you even have a job, it matters what kind of person you are.
And what kind of person are we? This is what the Bible says,
“God created humankind in God’s image. In God’s own image, God created them. Male and female, God created them.” (Gen. 1: 27)
The Lord called me before I was born, in my mother’s womb, God already named me. (Is. 49: 1)
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, and you are mine. …Because you are precious in my sight, and I love you. (Is. 43: 1 & 4)
And today, “You formed my innermost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately put together before anyone could see.” (Psalm 139: 13, 15)
That’s who we are. That is our purpose. To know and appreciate how valued and important we each are, for ourselves, for each other, and for God. That’ why the words of our president were so awful. He was dismissing whole groups of people as if they weren’t important. He wasn’t recognizing the God given lives of each of them.
A woman I know once described special memories of her son at different stages of his life. As a baby: hundreds of diapers she changed. A toddler: his first steps and first words. First grade…. Memories then and of ball games, and time with grandparents, and birthdays. She remembered overnights, camping, sports. She could lovingly recount special times that happened every year throughout this child’s life. And that’s how God sees us.
What we choose to do with our life: whether we get married or not, divorced or not, stay single, the country we live in or the kind of job we have, has nothing to do with our value as a person.
We are precious and loved in God’s sight for who we are. And the core of who we are, is precious and loved by God. None of the descriptions of our lives, or even our behaviors can change that. We are chosen, loved at every stage. We are the incredibly amazing sons and daughters of God. Amen.