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.

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