Sunday’s sermon: A Call and Response Faith

Text used – 1 Samuel 3:1-21

  • The call and response tradition has a long and colorful history throughout many cultures around the world.
    • Call and response tradition in Africa = pattern of community involvement → participation in public gatherings, civic affairs, religious rituals, and musical expression
      • Tradition that was brought to America in the slave ships → found outlets in some of the work songs that slaves sang in the fields → filtered down through the centuries into some of the most popular music of the last 2 centuries: gospel, blues, R&B, rock and roll, jazz, hip hop
    • Call and response tradition in camp songs → build community and an outlet for campers’ energy
      • E.g. – theater warm-up: “Boom Chicka Boom” → provides an easy-to-remember pattern/framework for the “song” while giving people all sorts of space to ad lib/riff on the theme
    • Call and response = great way to get students’ attention in a classroom
      • E.g. (from cartoon Julia and I were watching this week) Teacher: “One, two, three, eyes on me.” Students: “One, two, our eyes are on you.”
    • Call and response tradition in worship – two main ways
      • FIRST, also finds its roots in the African tradition → all of those things that we admittedly don’t often find in many mainline denominations
        • Pastor calling out “Can I get an amen?” in the midst of the sermon OR congregants spontaneously calling out things like “Amen” or “Preach” or “Praise Jesus” or any other audible response in the midst of the sermon
      • SECOND goes back centuries – antiphonal (back and forth, call and response) reading of psalms → been a part of praying the office (morning prayer, midday prayer, evening prayer, and compline) since the 1500s
        • Variation that we participate in every Sunday = Call to Worship/Opening Praise
    • African Interactive blog post about call and response tradition: “a fundamentally interactive form in which one group calls upon or asks questions of the other through performance, and the other answers or responds through performance. By its cyclic nature, call and response can be used for emphasis, for iterative development, and for turn-taking and complementarity between the groups involved.”[1]
    • Most central element of call and response tradition = it cannot be accomplished alone → There are a lot of traditions and worship practices that can be adapted from community practice to individual practice in some way, shape, or form. But not call and response. Call and response at its very core requires another … requires a connection … requires a relationship.
    • Today’s Scripture reading = perfect illustration of how and why our faith is a call and a response faith – a faith that requires interaction, connection, relationship
  • Before we dive into the story, let’s take a minute for a little backstory – a little context.
    • Wider context within the whole story of Scripture: chronologically, 1 Sam comes after Judges → If you look in your Bible, the book of Ruth in sandwiched in between Judges and 1 Samuel, but the books of the Bible aren’t arranged in chronological order. So what was happening at the end of Judges? The short answer is: Nothing good!
      • Judges = sort of the book in which the people of Israel are trying to get settled in the land of Canaan – intro from CEB study Bible: The book of Judges is a collection of stories about the time between Israel’s entrance into the land of Canaan and the rise of kings. It shows Israel as a society divided into tribal groups dealing with foreign enemies and each other.[2] → So throughout this whole timeframe – and even into the passage from 1 Samuel that we read this morning – the people of Israel have no central ruler. Instead, they have a series of elected judges – tribal leaders, essentially – to help make both legal and communal decisions. And like today’s leaders, these judges were far from perfect!
        • Recurring theme throughout the entire book of Jdgs: the people of Israel “did things that the Lord saw as evil” → Time and time again throughout Judges, the people turn away from God. They neglect God. They outright defy God’s commands and refuse God’s love.
        • End of Jdgs that leads into 1 Sam = no different → dark and complex story involving one man setting up an alternative worship system (against the rules), theft, abduction, forced conversion, rape and abuse, civil war, and even what could arguably be called genocide
      • Rev. Dr. Alphonetta Wines (bestselling author/editor, retired UMC pastor, biblical scholar, theologian, emotional motivator, transformational speaker, and spiritual entrepreneur): As First Samuel opens, things could not be worse for Israel. Judges, the previous book, ended with the community in chaos. … The nation was falling apart. The system of judgeships had failed miserably. With all of the chaos, how could the community possibly continue? Would it die before it began? Would the promise God made to Abraham go unfulfilled? Who would God send to begin to deal with this mess? Samuel, Israel’s last judge and first prophet since Moses, is God’s answer.[3]
    • So that brings us into 1 Samuel, but let’s narrow down our context view a little more and look at just the book of 1 Samuel itself.
      • Before today’s passage = story of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, and story of Samuel’s birth[4]
        • And sadly, Hannah’s story is not an unfamiliar one in Scripture.
          • Hannah = married to Elkanah
          • Elkanah also has another wife, Peninnah
          • Peninnah has a number of children with Elkanah, but Hannah has been unable to bear children
          • Lack of children makes Hannah miserable à misery is compounded by Peninnah’s taunting – text: [Hannah’s rival, Peninnah] would make fun of her mercilessly, just to bother her.[5]
          • One day, Hannah went to the tabernacle to pray to the Lord for a child à crying and ceaselessly mouthing her silent prayer (including promise to give her child to God if she were to become pregnant)
          • Encountered by the priest, Eli à Eli first chastises Hannah because he attributes her erratic behavior to drunkenness, not grief
          • Hannah explains her situation to Eli à Eli blesses Hannah à Hannah becomes pregnant: Samuel
        • Following Samuel’s birth, Hannah does indeed bring him to the tabernacle at the age of 3 to be raised as a nazirite, a special, consecrated servant for God
      • Also before today’s passage = long section detailing the corruption and sins of the sons of Eli, the priest: taking the best meat from offerings before they were sacrificed appropriately (essentially used this holy sacrifice as a barbeque) → Eli confronts them and tries to get them to change, but they ignore him[6]
        • See evidence of that falling away in the beginning of our text for this morning: The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.[7]
  • Okay, so that brings us up to today’s story – the story of Samuel’s call. – love this story!
    • FIRST, Samuel’s name = bit of foreshadowing as to the role he will play → “Samuel” = Heb. word for hear/call/consent (implies listening intelligently and obediently) + word for God → So Samuel’s name literally means “called of God” or “heard of God.”[8]
      • Setting
        • TIME: “God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet” → means it was the middle of the night
        • PLACE: “Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was” → “God’s chest” = Ark of the Covenant (held precious sacred objects including the commandment tablets that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai)
    • Almost seems like a pantomime: God calls Samuel → Samuel thinks Eli is calling him → Samuel jumps up and runs to Eli’s side → Eli tells Samuel he didn’t call him and instructs him to go back to bed → And this happens not once … not twice … but three times before Eli finally tumbles to the fact that the call Samuel is hearing is a call from God. I mean, it almost sounds like a comedy routine, right? “Did you call me?” “No, I didn’t call you! Go back to bed!” “Did you call me?” “No, I didn’t call you! Go back to bed!” … “Did you call me?”
    • Eli finally figures out that it is the Lord’s call that Samuel keeps hearing → instructs Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”
      • Heb. “listening” = same word that’s wrapped up in Samuel’s own name – word that implies intelligence and obedience in the listening
    • So Samuel obediently responds as Eli instructed him to, and Samuel hears the full call of the Lord his God. And to be honest, friends, that’s almost always where we stop this reading. “Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ Samuel said, ‘Speak. Your servant is listening.’”[9] End of story. Contented sigh. Leaves us feeling all happy and comfortable, right? Sure … but in truth, that’s not the end of Samuel’s call story.
      • God’s call is not an easy call for Samuel – text: The Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”[10] → God isn’t calling Samuel to some easy, fabulous, run-of-the-mill task here. God isn’t simply calling Samuel to discipleship – to a life-long relationship of learning and following, of prayer and praise. God is calling Samuel – who, remember, is still just a boy at this point (or an early adolescent at most!) … God is calling Samuel to deliver this hard and harsh message to none other than his mentor and teacher. And it’s not just a message about the sins and failings of some random people. It’s a message about the severe punishment that God intends to meter out on Eli’s own sons.
        • See discomfort in Samuel’s response – text: Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.[11] → Heb. “afraid” = feeling fear but fear enmeshed with an element of respect and reverence
    • And to be honest, Samuel’s call never gets any easier either.
      • Samuel anoints Israel’s 1st king, Saul[12], despite knowing that God does not desire a monarchy for God’s people[13] (for fear that the monarchy would take the place of God in the people’s hearts or that various kings would lead the people astray … both of which happen time and time again)
      • When Saul loses God’s favor[14] (for turning away from God and leading the people astray … surprise, surprise), Samuel anoints David as king instead of Saul[15] → Samuel is right there to witness all the danger, death, and destruction that come from this dynastic change before his death[16]
  • So here’s the thing, folx. As we walk through the Grand Story of our faith again this year, we’re beginning to see once again just how messy and complicated and chaotic and broken this story is. We’re encountering all the tangled threads and twisted storylines. We’re reminded that humanity’s imperfectness is far from a modern-day phenomenon. And yet in the midst of all that chaos and brokenness – in the midst of all the turning away from God and willfully dismissing God – God still calls. God calls Samuel to faith and action. And after Samuel, God continues to call others. And even today, God calls more people. God calls us.
    • Called to faith – to that call-and-response relationship with God à faith that originates in God’s call, faith that’s embodied in that relationship and enacted in our response
      • Doesn’t promise to be an easy call
      • Doesn’t promise to be a comfortable call (actually, basically promises that it’s going to be uncomfortable!)
      • But what Scripture does promise us is that God will be there – there in the calling, there in the equipping, there in the enacting, there in the blessing, there in the struggling, there in the leading, there in the calling out, there in it all. God will be there. So speak, Lord. Your servants are listening. Amen.

[1] http://africaninteractive.org/projects/call-and-response/.

[2] Brad E. Kelle. “Judges: Introduction” in The CEB Study Bible. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), 367 OT.

[3] Alphonetta Wines. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-21” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/god-calls-samuel/commentary-on-1-samuel-31-21-3.

[4] 1 Sam 1:1-28.

[5] 1 Sam 1:6.

[6] 1 Sam 2:12-36.

[7] 1 Sam 3:1.

[8] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/1-samuel-31-21a/,

[9] 1 Sam 3:10.

[10] 1 Sam 3:11-14.

[11] 1 Sam 3:15b.

[12] 1 Sam 9-10.

[13] 1 Sam 8.

[14] 1 Sam 13, 15.

[15] 1 Sam 16

[16] 1 Sam 25:1.

Sunday’s sermon: A Reluctant Messenger

Text used – Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:1-10

  • I want to read you a short passage from a beloved book this morning: [READ PASSAGE from The Hobbit[1]] → Bilbo Baggins. The conventional, unassuming, happy-with-thing-just-as-they-are hobbit of the Shire. The respectable, modest, no-nonsense hobbit who went about his days sensibly and dependably, never seeking anything so messy and unpleasant as an adventure.
    • Words to Gandalf when he meets him at the very beginning of this tale: [Gandalf said, “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” [Bilbo replied,] “I should think so – in these parts! We are plain folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”[2]
    • And yet, as this epic tale unfolds, there Bilbo is in the middle of it all.
      • Begins by running off after the dwarves who had invaded his home, eaten all of his food, laid this absurd and dangerous proposal of a quest in his lap, then left in a hurry and a messy before he’d even awoken that morning → Despite all that – all those disturbingly uncomfortable goings on, Bilbo finds himself running after these dwarves, simultaneously hoping and fearing that they have begun their grand quest without him.
      • Soon learns that, indeed, adventures are nearly as uncomfortable as he had believed them to be → But he also comes to the surprising realization that a little bit of discomfort wasn’t as hateful as he may have originally thought. He comes to the realization that “adventures were not so bad after all.”
      • And as it turns out, this Grand Story couldn’t happen without him. Bilbo is a key character. He is essential … even if he begins his foray into this tale with reluctance.
    • Not so different from Moses in our Grand Story of faith this morning
      • Begins as unassuming shepherd for his father-in-law’s flock, just minding his own business and looking after the sheep
        • About as far out into the middle of nowhere as he could get – text said Moses was with Jethro’s flocks on “God’s mountain called Horeb” → “Horeb” literally means waste or desolate
  • And yet even in the midst of that vast and seemingly-empty wilderness, Moses is not alone. God is waiting there for him … waiting to call Moses to the role that he is truly meant to play. The key role. The essential role: deliverer.
    • Love the way that today’s reading is cut because it begins by reminding us why the people of Israel need a deliverer in the first place – text: A long time passed, and the Egyptian king died. The Israelites were still groaning because of their hard work. They cried out, and their cry to be rescued from the hard work rose up to God. God heard their cry of grief, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked at the Israelites, and God understood.[3] → saw an interesting conversation in one of the online text study groups I’m a part of this week about this portion of our Scripture
      • The question someone presented: Why does God have to “remember” the Israelites? What does that say about God?
      • Someone else’s response (intriguing): “remembered” = more of a tone of being mindful of something → It doesn’t necessarily mean that God had entirely forgotten the covenants God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It means that God was mindful of those covenants and of the people’s suffering. Maybe they remained on the forefront of God’s mind, and God was waiting for the right person. The essential person … even if he is reluctant.
  • After being reminded of why God needs a deliverer for the people of Israel, we get that beautiful, stirring tale of God calling Moses
    • Dramatic
      • A tale of a burning bush and sacred ground
      • A tale narrated by the voice of God
      • A tale that reveals the name of the one true God – text: But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”[4] → Even the name of God here is living and vibrant. It has its own identity, its own essence.
        • “I Am Who I Am” = Heb. YHWH → word related to life, to essence à root is an active word, a word with purpose and agency and vitality
          • Be/become
          • Take place
          • Have
          • Serve
          • There is a sense about this word – about this highest, holiest name of God – that is constantly moving and doing, constantly changing and transforming. It is dynamic and persistent, but it’s also steadfast and deliberate. This is the essence of God – the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the universe – all summed up into two syllables that sound as simple and calming and effortless as breathing: Yah … weh … Yah … weh.
    • Also a name rooted in history … a history that Moses knows nothing about. Remember, Moses’ mother put him in a reed basket and set him afloat on the Nile when he was a baby because Pharaoh, afraid that the Hebrew slaves would overthrow their Egyptian oppressors, attempted to cull the rising population of the Hebrew slaves by killing all the boys. Moses’ mother sent him down the river in hopes that he would find a better life, and indeed, he was found and adopted by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter.
      • Means he grew up in an Egyptian household
      • Means he grew up with Egyptian traditions, Egyptian customs, and, most importantly, Egyptian gods
      • Means he knew nothing of the Hebrew heritage into which he was born: the Hebrew traditions, the Hebrew customs, or the Hebrew God → God who promised to remain with the people of Israel and protect them
      • And yet despite this lack of knowledge, God roots God’s own self and name in this history when God speaks to Moses. – text: [God said], “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God. … Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.”[5]
        • Scholar speaks to the poignancy of God naming Godself in this way: When we are rooted in relationship, the names that we have for God are inevitably particular. They reflect the give and take, the successes and failures, the good times and the bad times of ongoing exchange.[6]
  • And then our lectionary reading for today cuts from God’s response to Moses’ question to Moses’ response to God’s call. It brings the story back around. – text: But Moses said to the Lord, “My Lord, I’ve never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before, and certainly not now since you’ve been talking to your servant. I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.”[7]
    • This feels like a very Bilbo response to me. God has said to Moses, “I am looking for someone to share in a salvation that I’m arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” And Moses replied, “I should think so – in these parts! I am a plain quiet man and have no use for an exodus. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable thing! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”
      • Also feels a little bit like one of Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts that was popular a number of years ago: “To me, it’s a good idea to always carry two sacks of something when you walk around. That way, if anybody says, Hey, can you give me a hand? You can say, Sorry, got these sacks.” → This sort of feels like Moses’ way of trying to sidestep God’s call – like Moses’ way of excuse his way out of God’s call. “Sorry, God, I can’t help you. I’ve got these sacks. I’ve got this baggage – this slow mouth and thick tongue. Looks like you’d better get someone else for the job.”
    • And we can sit here and laugh, and we can side-eye Moses for being so audacious as to try to evade the direct and definitive call of God … but how often do we do the same thing?
      • Feel that pull to invite someone to church … then talk ourselves out of it
      • Feel that pull to ask if we can pray for someone … then talk ourselves out of it
      • Feel that pull to talk to someone about God or our faith or who Jesus is to us … then talk ourselves out of it
      • “I don’t have the right words. I don’t want to intrude. I don’t want to offend. I don’t want to bother them. What I have to say can’t be that important … can’t be that impactful … can’t be that helpful.” And we keep out mouths shut and go about our daily lives. Sorry, God, we’ve got these two sacks … *shrug*
  • Today’s reading: God sees right through Moses’ excuses
    • Initially God tries to firmly reassure Moses of his own gifts by tying them back to God’s own powerful nature – text: Then the Lord said to [Moses], “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord? Now go! I’ll help you speak, and I’ll teach you what you should say.”[8]
    • Moses again tries to deflect God’s call (definitely more desperately and directly this time) – text: Moses said, “Please, my Lord, just send someone else.”[9]
      • Heb. includes tiny, untranslated word that is used for pleading, for urgent requests
      • Heb. worded in such a way that it’s clear Moses is asking for someone else who is equipped – “someone else” = connotations of someone with the ability or power, someone with the means to accomplish whatever the task in question might be → And I think this is important because it shows us that Moses isn’t objecting to the task itself. Moses isn’t begging God to just leave the Israelites in slavery in Egypt. He isn’t throwing up his hands in apathy, saying, “Not my problems, God.” Moses is throwing up his hands in doubt, saying, “Not my forte, God.”
    • But again, God cuts straight through Moses’ objections (decidedly less forbearing this time)
      • Text tells us God actually got angry with Moses → God’s patience with Moses’ meekness has run out
      • Text tell us God directs Moses to find his brother, Aaron, to be his righthand man – text (God to Moses): “Speak to [Aaron] and tell him what he’s supposed to say. I’ll help both of you speak, and I’ll teach both of you what to do. Aaron will speak for you to the people.”[10]
    • And there it is. Moses is out of excuses. He’s out of reasons to say, “No.” And dang it all … God is still calling him. So what’s a guy to do?
  • Text is rich with nuggets and lessons, to be sure → But I think there are two really critical lessons we hear in this text this morning, especially in the way it’s cut and pieced together for today’s reading.
    • FIRST, as the popular phrase goes nowadays, “God does not call the equipped. God equips the called.” → God didn’t call Moses because he was the perfect person to speak eloquently to the people of Israel or to Pharaoh, simultaneously spinning a web of convincing arguments around Pharaoh and inspiring the people of Israel with moving sermons and impassioned testimony. God called Moses because God needed him. God called Moses because God knew Moses’ heart. God called Moses … because.
      • God doesn’t call us because we’re perfect
      • God doesn’t call us because we’re indisputably equipped
      • God doesn’t call us because we’re necessarily even ready!
      • God calls us because there is work to be done for God’s kin-dom here on earth. There is love to be shared. There is good news to be told. There is a table to be spread. There is hope that abounds. And we get to be a part of that because God calls us.
    • SECOND, God didn’t call Moses alone → God called Moses along with Aaron → God called Moses in community
      • Makes me think of Paul’s words in Eph: He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ.[11] → Not one of us is called to be all of those things in one human being. Not one of us is called to be a one-person show for Christ. Not one of us is called to do It All and be It All in the kin-dom of God. But we are called to work together – to bring our gifts as God has given them to us to be the body of Christ together: to share the love, to tell the good news, to come to the table, and to live into hope. Together. Together with the Great I Am. And that, friends, is indeed good news. Amen.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), 27, 28, 29.

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] Ex 2:23-25.

[4] Ex 3:13-14.

[5] Ex 3:6a, 15a.

[6] Reed Carlson. “Commentary on Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17” for Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/gods-name-is-revealed/commentary-on-exodus-223-25-31-15-410-17-2.

[7] Ex 4:10.

[8] Ex 4:11-12.

[9] Ex 4:13.

[10] Ex 4:15-16a.

[11] Eph 4:11-12.