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Sun, Jan 14, 2018

Insomnia

Duration:18 mins 3 secs

“Insomnia”

Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-20

2nd Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

 

Insomnia seems to run in my family, and I am no exception to the rule. Like many people, I go through periods where I struggle with wakefulness – sometimes it takes a long time to fall asleep, because my mind is so full of the events of the day that it won’t shut off; other times I wake up at three or four AM with some nagging worry or fear.

There was a very funny article about insomnia in The New Yorker a few years ago: the writer, Jenny Allen, told about all the ways she tried to get herself back to sleep while her husband slept soundly, and enragingly, beside her. At one point, she set about trying to remember all the girls and women she had ever known who were named Judy. That’s the kind of thing insomniacs do. You can say the Lord’s Prayer or recite the 23rd Psalm – or the multiplication tables or the states and their capitals – just so many times.

At 4:00 in the morning small worries can take on large dimensions. Problems have to be taken hold of and wrestled to the ground before the first light of morning. The arrival of morning seems to put everything in perspective, so that problems seem manageable again, but sometimes the worries are more existential: What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Why do I fritter away so much time on trivialities? What does God think of the way I’m handling things? For those of you who have ever had trouble sleeping, you know that being wide awake at 4 AM can be a very lonely place. Not for nothing is it called “the hour of the wolf.”

It is unlikely that Samuel was plagued with the kind of insomnia I’ve just described, but something was going on to disturb his sleep that night in the temple. Nobody ever mentions this, but Samuel must have been a lonely child. The temple was not exactly a great place to grow up. You may remember Samuel had been dedicated to God by his mother, Hannah, when he was just a toddler. She took him to the temple at Shiloh, along with offerings of wine, flour, and a three-year-old bull, and left him under the care of Eli, the priest of the temple. Hannah thought it was the least she could do to thank God for giving her a child – she had been infertile, and had prayed and asked for a child, and her prayer was answered.

Samuel was a kind of priest trainee, an apprentice under Eli. Samuel’s job, it seems, was to open and close the temple doors at the appropriate times, to keep the lamps burning, to keep watch over the ark of God and all the holy things, and, I assume, to help tend to the sacrifices. That meant Samuel had to be involved in the slaughter of animals or at least clean up afterwards. He lived in a place that, for all its holiness, must have often smelled like a charnel-house. Samuel earned his nighttime rest – but things were brewing in Israel that were about to disturb everybody’s sleep.

The sons of Eli were “scoundrels,” we’re told in Chapter Two. They had no regard for God or for the duties of the priests to the people. The behavior of Eli’s sons must have been symptomatic of the state of things in Israel at the time, for we are told at the beginning of Chapter Three that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” It seems that the divine presence had withdrawn from the life of Israel; God had been pushed away through the corruption of these sons and others like them. Whatever was going on at Shiloh was not confined to Shiloh.

This is the situation in which Samuel has his sleep disturbed. Tradition has it that Samuel was twelve years old at the time of these events, but I tend to picture him as a little kid, padding down the hall in his pj’s to respond to the voice he has heard, the voice he thinks is Eli’s. We know by now that Samuel was, in a sense, Eli’s eyes and ears, but he still couldn’t understand everything he heard and saw. Three times he went obediently to Eli, and three times Eli sent him back to his lonely bed – only the third time, Eli figured out what was going on and gave Samuel instructions for what to do if he heard the voice again. So the fourth time God called, Samuel was ready. What he must not have been ready for was the stern and frightening message he had to deliver to his mentor and guardian.

“Samuel lay there until morning,” we are told, and we can only imagine the agony of his sleeplessness. Here is a young boy thrown into a very adult situation, something far more serious and frightening than the things that keep most of us up at night. Samuel has to tell Eli about the ruin of his own household. Samuel is courageous, though, and when morning comes he goes to Eli. Eli is even more courageous, because he has a pretty good idea that the message will not be good news for him.

What does it take to hear the voice of God? More important, do we have what it takes to listen when that voice comes to us? Christians are always talking about wanting God to give us a “word,” tell us what to do and how to do it, but I wonder: Do we really want this? If we did, would we make the conditions more favorable for hearing?

Those wakeful times at night are times most of us try to avoid. Those things that keep nagging us in the early morning hours, those little pulses of wakefulness that bring us face to face with our “deeper, less comfortable” selves: this is what we try to escape by playing our memory games, making our lists, turning on the TV or pulling out our phones, to shut out the noise of the voice that is coming from somewhere deep inside us. But what if God is using these very moments to try to get through to us? What if God is actually trying to tell us something that we are too nervous or afraid or preoccupied to listen to? What if God is calling us by name but we keep running somewhere else where we can’t hear?

Of course, God doesn’t just speak to us as a voice in the night. God speaks just as often through the events of the day, only most of the time we’re so busy with our to-do lists that we don’t hear.

There’s a church in Miami whose pastor was called to youth court to serve as a translator for the father of an eleven-year-old boy, Victor, who had shot another child in the leg with a BB gun. Victor was from a poor and violent neighborhood, so he got the maximum sentence for his crime; his punishment included 25 hours of community service. The pastor said he could do the community service at her church. Victor did more than he was required to do. In addition to clearing and cleaning the youth room, he set up a table with a cross facing out the window so people on the outside could see it. He was asked to help with vacation Bible school, and brought three of his friends to work with him. While Victor and his friends were busy at the church, the pastor was focusing on carrying out her day-to-day responsibilities, responding to the many needs that were presented each day. During the VBS week, Victor’s friend Pedro came to her with a question: “You know those community service hours Victor has? How can I get some of those?”

“I was stunned to attention. All the other voices crying out for attention stopped. I was silent. Then I listened. The voice of the Lord was about to speak a new vision. It was clear and came with a challenge: Do kids have to shoot someone with a BB gun before they are invited into your church?"

"From that day on, Victor and his friends guided our Wednesday afternoon youth ministry…in a once dusty, messy room. The cross stayed in the east window, but more and more young people began to see it from inside rather than from the outside. Victor and his friends respectfully demanded access to a building they thought had been closed to them, a space where the word of the Lord was rare and visions not widespread – until their voices cried out.”1

God does continue to speak to us. If the word of the Lord seems “rare” or nonexistent, it is probably because we have pushed everything away from our consciousness that would allow us to hear it. The voice of God tends to be disruptive of the status quo, so it is more comforting to make our to-do lists at night and check them off during the day than to wait and listen in those sometimes lonely spaces in our lives that we are so desperate to fill up.

Those who are being ordained and installed today have a particular responsibility for listening for the voice of God. It is not a responsibility that any of them bears alone, but together the leaders of the church are called to listen for what the Spirit is saying to the church: Who is crying out to be recognized, included and valued? What is God calling the church to be and to do that has not been considered before? How is God challenging the church to go into places or situations that may not be comfortable, but where Christ is surely present?

Where is God calling the church to examine itself, our assumptions and our practices, to see how we can align ourselves more closely with the values of God’s kingdom? How is God seeking to transform the church to be Christ’s body in the world?

These are questions that may keep our elders and deacons alert, attentive and wakeful to see what God is doing in our midst.

If something is keeping us up at night – or disturbing our peace during the day – it may be an opportunity. It may provide us just the occasion we need to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

January 14, 2018

[1] Cynthia D. Weems, “Living the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century 129;1 (January 11, 2012), 21.

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