The St. Andrew's Pulpit
Rev. Ross Smillie and Amy Mueller
January 15, 2012
A Prophet and a Mentor
So Eli said to Samuel, "Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, say,
'Yes, LORD, your servant is listening.'" - 1 Samuel 3:1-10
When I realized that we would be celebrating Amy's reception as a Designated Lay Minister this morning on the Sunday that we would also be reading the story of Eli and Samuel, I was surprised and delighted. Because this story is one of my favorites, in part because I think it expresses a really important aspect of ministry, helping others recognize their own call. And as Amy and I talked about this service, we realized that, at this stage in our careers, I have a bit more in common with Eli, and she identifies a bit more with Samuel, so we decided to share this sermon, reflecting on this story and the one from John, from our different perspectives.
In this story, Eli has been a priest for a long, long time. He is old, really old (that's not what I have in common with him, in case you were wondering!). He has lost his sight and has turned most of the work over to his two sons, and to his young assistant, Samuel. His productive life is over, and he may be simply waiting to die, convinced that there is little left for him to live for. He is a bit like someolder people, who wrestle with similarfeelings. But there is still an important role for Eli, and for other seniors as well. Eli may not be the leading man any more, but still gets the award for best senior in a supporting role. And that role is the role of a mentor. Eli recognizes and affirms Samuel's call, and helps him to respond to it. He encourages Samuel to recognize his own intuitions and judgments as worth paying attention to, and helps him to realize that what he is hearing is something others need to hear as well.
As important as Samuel is to our history, I am not sure I would have wanted to be in his place. When he was a child, his mother gave him to Eli and thus, the church, to raise. Samuel spent his nights, not in a warm bed between his parents, or in a room down the hallway with his stuffie and nightlight, but in the temple of the Lord. He slept alone. And in that stillness, although he didn't know it, he heard God call him. Maybe it's fortunate Samuel thought he was hearing Eli. Otherwise, hemay have been terrified! And it is certainly interesting that the Lord's voice sounded so much to Samuel like Eli's that he confused them with each other. I think the same can be true for each of us-that if we knew God was speaking directly to us we might be scared. But when that voice, the voice of God, sounds like someone we know and respect and love, we respond to it more readily. And when the knowledge that we haven't heard a human voice but the Lord's voice is revealed to us in a loving and constructive manor, we are able to listen to it without trepidation.
Being a mentor for another requires us to pay attention, to listen carefully. But listening and paying attention requires time, something that is in short supply in our culture. This might be an important role for seniors in our community. Because elders often feel that they have time on their hands. Perhaps that time can be used to listen with extra attentiveness. It may be that a visitor or a housekeeper or a nurse says something or doesn't say something. You might not even notice at the time, but as you, with all the time in the world, contemplate that visit, remembering it, turning over the words that were said, you notice something that wasn't obvious at the time. It starts as a hunch. Was there something being said between the lines that you need to discuss with them further? Is there a problem for which they need support, a decision with which they are struggling, a dream that needs to be encouraged?
You're all familiar with the expression "out of the mouths of babes..."? It is a commonly heard refrain when we relate cute stories about our young children's insights and 'worldly' comments. But we're less interested, often, in what the teenager in baggy jeans and a hoodie several sizes too big has to say. It's too bad. I suspect they have quite a lot to share. But guess what? Biblical scholars believe Samuel would have been 12 or a little older in this story. A TEENAGER! GASP!! And like many teenagers, it took Samuel a whileto recognize that the voice he was hearing belonged to God. Itdidn't occur to him that God would want to talk to him. In fact, it took an adult he respected and who respected him to tell him to listen carefully, that God was calling his name. Which makes me wonder…..how often do we tell our young people that God is interested in them, that God cares about them, and even more, that God does believe in them and that they do have a ministry? "Youth ministry" isn't just about youth groups or what we, the older church, do to and for the young people in our churches. It's also about the ministry those young people provide for us. Often, we don't really hear the message young people bring us. But if we can, like Eli, recognize that their message may have originated with God, we will be better able to guide them in their own learning.
If we are to be good mentors to a younger generation, it may be especially important to listen carefully to those we are more accustomed to teaching. Sometimes, the roles reverse. Eli the teacher must now recognize that he must learn from Samuel the student. This is what parenting and teaching is about - we hope that our children will grow up and reach maturity and be competent and independent - we hope those we teach will develop their own leadership abilities, which will often lead them in different directions thanwe would have chosen for them. Sometimes though, it is hard to relinquish control, and allow the one we have been mentoring to assume aleadership role. Sometimes we feel threatened by the leadership of others, and our first instinct is to keep them in their place. It may take every fragment of courage we possess to encourage others to assume the mantle of leadership. But that encouragement may be the greatest gift we can give another human being.
Just like Samuel, we all need an Eli in our lives... someone who sees in us what we don't necessarily see in ourselves. Someone who affirms our nudgings of God in ways we don't understand. For some of us (me!) it takes longer to experience God's presence than in others of us. Sometimes we don't listen very well to the whispers of God in the night. I'll never forget the time Ross asked if I may have given thought to ministry. I was standing with my back to him, looking over the titles of the books on his bookshelf when he asked the question. And I froze. It was startling to me that he could see what was going on inside me, when I wasn't sure myself. And I didn't respond quite as gracefully as Samuel. I laughed it off and changed the subject…………..but then spent the next four nights awake, hoping for a confirmation from God as to if I was being called in this direction or if I was grossly missing the mark. I didn't get an answer in that time, and on the fifth night, I slept. But with the guidance of those wiser than me, I did, eventually, hear God speak to me.
I'm not sure that I am any wiser than Amy, but sometimes we do need the encouragement of others to recognize God's calling. Amy had been an active leader in our Sunday School, and had shown real qualities of leadership in that role. [The more I worked with Amy the more I noticed creativity, a personal spirituality, a thirst for knowledge and insight, and a passion for sharing her faith with other people.] I talked it over with Mervin and he had noticed the same things. We agreed to encourage her to consider ordered ministry.Talking to her about it was like planting a seed. I planted the idea and then waited to see if something would grow. In Amy's case it didn't take long, only a few days, before she was back in my office wanting to talk more about what it might mean. She told me I wasn't the first to mention it. Another minister who had a formative role in her life while she lived in Claresholm had also encouraged her. So there were several of us who were nurturing this particular seed.
Amy is not the only person I've encouraged to consider ordered ministry. I've talked toat least four people from this congregation about the same thing. So far, at least, Leanne Benoit and Amy are the only ones who have thought I wasn't completely crazy! But I haven't given up hope on the others!
While I can't speak for Leanne, Ross' encouragement was exactly what I needed. I needed help to figure out what was going on inside my mind and heart. It isn't easy to recognize God's voice when it's competing with the voices of our children, spouses, parents, friends, news headlines, employers, societies and so on…………..and this is an area that the Eli's of our world have much to offer. The gift of community is truly a blessing to us. The more experienced members of the community can offer direction and guidance to those just starting on their journeys, while the younger ones can offer new ways of seeing and hearing the word of God. This model contains the power of both the past and the future. What has been cannot come again in exactly the same way, but it can be transformed into new ways, offering a way to move forward that honours the collective wisdom of what has gone before us as well as the Holy Spirit's guidance into the future. Samuel, to whom the word of the Lord was rare, needed Eli to help him understand that it was indeed a word from God and to find an appropriate way to respond to this revelation. And, coupling this with the Gospel, Nathanael also needed Philip's encouragement to "Come and see" who this Jesus was, and whether or not he was worth following.
Jesus' role in the gospel passage is similar to Eli's role in the reading from the Older Testament. At first Nathanael is skeptical about Jesus. When Philip tells him about Jesus, he is dismissive. "The Messiah cannot be from a hick town like Nazareth!" thinks Nathanael. A less secure person might have been insulted, but Jesus recognizes a rare honesty in the bluntness of this comment, saying, "There's a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body." Nathanael is astonished. Perhaps people had always previously reacted to his candor with hostility. For Jesus to notice his frank manner and see the value of it unnerves him. But how could Jesus have possibly known that about him. "Where did you get to know me?" he asked. "Long before Philip invited you," Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree." The story doesn't say what fig tree they were talking about, or what happened there, but Nathanael realizes that Jesus has a quality of perception that is the sign of true leadership, of true rabbis and great kings.
To notice each other, to pay attention, is a critical quality in leadership. And it is a kind of leadership that can be offered by many people in the congregation. I remain very grateful to a couple of people in this congregation for their roles in mentoring my children. Leanne Oslund noticed leadership ability in my daughter Sara and her friend Nicole Bergen and encouraged them to start a choir for the youngest children. They did that for years and it gave them a real sense of accomplishment and belonging in this congregation. Dayton Thesenvitz noticed that my son Sean was technically oriented and encouraged him to get involved with the Audio-Visual ministry, which gave him a sense of contributing and belonging to this congregation.
These stories, of Eli and Samuel, of Jesus and Nathanael, are stories of mentors and disciples, of those who take the time to notice the gifts of God in others and who encourage them to offer leadership. These are stories that encourage us to play the same role in the lives of others.It is a holy calling and a sacred responsibility.
The church is a wonderful place to share where we believe God may be calling us, and to encourage each other to hear and see God for themselves, in their own lives and circumstances. It is easy to disregard the past as we are looking toward the future. And we shouldn't give up looking to the future. But in our zeal to move forward we must remember who taught us to do so. And let us not assume that we know the way on our own.