It's a quaint custom we get a glimpse of in I Samuel, a relic from a distant past, something inconceivable to us moderns: the idea that Hannah and her husband should offer their first-born child to the priesthood in exchange for God giving them a child. Well, it's just... un-American, I tell you. We want to say, "Shouldn't the boy himself have some say about what he will be when he grows up and how he will serve God? He might want to be a shepherd or a tentmaker, or something the world needs even more - an honest politician. Why should he be thrown into the temple and raised to be a priest against his will? Isn't that just complicating things for him all his life as to who's the one calling him-God or his mother?"
Well, maybe. But let's look at the other side of the coin. Work with me here. Would you agree that the most important priority in time and eternity is the kingdom of God? And would you agree that the church is the chief agent of the kingdom in this life? And would you agree that the church thrives when it has many and able servants of the word of God to equip and enable the ministry of all the people of God? And would you agree that God would not leave the church without the leadership necessary for it to be at its best in the world?
If you answered yes to all these questions, then you must believe that God has called enough men and women in our time to serve as vocational ministers in our churches, right? All right, then. Why is it that only about five percent of Christian ministers in all Protestant denominations in North America today are under the age of 35? Is God planning an ensmallment campaign for the church of the 21st century? Has God quit calling people into the ministry, or did we hear Willie Nelson wrong? Did he really sing: "Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be preachers. Don't let 'em drink grape juice and baptize old drunks. Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such." Well, judging by the number of young people applying to law school and medical school compared to divinity school, we're doing a pretty good job of directing our kids away from the ministry.
Now you could say that the church hasn't needed any help directing young people away from career ministry. We've done a good job of looking like the last place young people might want to land. Scandals and slanders left and right, from the left and from the right, infighting and backbiting, too tight on some things and too loose on others, too out-of-date in some ways and too up-to-date in others, too worldly and not enough at the same time. We get it wrong in lots of ways.
Excuse us, please, but church people-including us paid Christians-are plagued by the same tragic laws of flesh and blood as every other profession. We're just flesh and blood human beings for God's sake. On the other hand, that's all God asks us to be. Human beings for God's sake. We are sinners in the hands of a loving God. Nothing more or less. So find a profession free of sin and go into it. Otherwise, why not consider the church a live option? There's plenty wrong with the church, but take it from one on the inside, there's plenty right with it. I see all the problems; heavens, I have to look in the mirror every morning. But the church is still where people find the life that really is life. This is where people are treasured for who they are apart from the size of their treasure. This is where people stand up for justice and speak up for the voiceless. This is where we practice on each other how to love our neighbor so that we'll do better next Friday when the guy next door leaves his trash in the alley-again.
We think of Martin Luther as the great reformer of the church and the loudest voice for the priesthood of all believers over against the clergy, but he also spoke plainly to his congregation about this clergy-shortage problem in his own day. One Sunday he looked out over the pulpit and said this: "It is your fault. You could have done something about it. You could have helped to maintain the churches if you had allowed your child to study, and where it is possible for you to do this, but you failed to do so where your child has the ability and the desire to learn but you stand in the way, then you, and mark this well, you are guilty of the harm that is done when the spiritual estate of the clergy disappears, and neither God nor God's Word remains in the world. To the extent that you are able, you are bringing about its demise. You refuse to give one child and would do the same if all the children in the world were yours. So far as you are concerned, the serving of God can just die out altogether."
If you think that sounds harsh, you ought to hear it in the German. In the Middle Ages, families were urged to offer one of their sons to the church as a tithe of the womb. Now, one of the reasons for the idea of a celibate priesthood is that often the first-born would be offered to the church and with it the inheritance. If there were no offspring, the church would gain the property. Sounds like a plan, huh? And you thought that unmarried priesthood thing was all theological.
But let's look into the matter of calling a little deeper. You parents offer your children to God in baptism or dedication services. You acknowledge that they are not your children, really, that their lives are not their own. They belong to God. You are only stewards over their childhood. You promised to keep them within the precincts of the temple in order that they may learn the sound of the voice of God. But, then, when they show the least interest in the ministry, do you celebrate that and nurture them toward discernment, or do you figure they can never make enough of a living in the church to take care of you in your old age? Do you worry they might be making a mistake? Well, do you worry just as much if they go to business school? Listen, we don't want young people in the church world that God has called into the business world. But neither should we want young people in the business world that God has called into the church world. We want every person to answer the unique call of God to each one. All we're saying here is that we may need to help our kids get the wax out of their ears that builds up with our built-up expectations of them doing anything but ministry in the church.
Hannah offered young Samuel to God and put him in the hands of the old priest Eli. She prayed for him to serve God. That's all she could have done, and I don't fault her for it. She had every reason to shy away from the Temple. Eli's sons were immoral rogues. The priesthood was in a bad way. A religious vocation was hardly attractive then. But God moved in Hannah's heart to offer her son, and God spoke a word to Samuel himself - a word for him and only him. Eli, for his part and for all his failings, succeeded in this. He helped young Samuel discern the voice of God in the night. In fact, Samuel first heard the voice of God and confused it with the voice of Eli. How often does that happen for young people with pastors and ministers and adults in our churches?
This is one of the great tasks of the church in every age, and a key theme in the season of Epiphany. We depend on the same God that spoke from heaven in Jesus' baptism a word of blessing and call to do the same for us. We must help one another recognize the unique call of God to each soul. We only want people to serve by God's design. We want them to find the gifts God has given them and the way to use them best that God has made for them. That will likely mean that most people still don't go into full-time church ministry, but it will likely mean that many more will than have been until now. Parents, ministers, and friends must help young people and even older second-career people discern the voice of God calling them in the night, the way God called to Samuel.
In her book "The Writing Life," Annie Dillard tells of a well-known writer who was collared by a university student who asked, "Do you think I could be a writer?" "Well," the writer said, "I don't know. Do you like sentences?" That encounter reminded her of the painter she knew who discerned his call by saying, "I like the smell of paint."
What about young people in our churches? Do any of them love the smell of church? Do they like sermons? Can you tell that there is no place they feel more at home than in church? There are other signals - a caring personality, the ability to speak in front of others, a mind curious and sharp. But are we paying attention to the ways they are coming to ask us about the voice that is calling in the night even if they do not know the words with which to ask?
We believe in a living God who knows your name and mine and is keenly interested in your finding out how you were made for the sake of the kingdom. Whether you are made to do church work or the work of the church in the world, God has designed you with gifts and desires that can only be satisfied fully when you tune in to the frequency of God's voice and turn on to the frequency of daily service of God's world. The church is here to help you tune in and turn on. This is what we do. It's one of our callings to answer for the world. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. I've not been able to resist riding my hobby horse about clergy-calling. Our text just happens to saddle me up and shame on me if I didn't trot him out of the carnival corral for a while. If any of you think this is for you, then hop on the back and we'll ride the wide-open spaces together of ministerial service. The point of this Samuel story is not only to say that God has a special calling of vocation for some of us or that God has a unique ministry for each of us, though that word is here too. The first calling is the calling of God to come and serve the world in whatever way God leads. As Christians, that first call is to follow Christ wherever he leads. Everything else follows from there. The beautiful thing is that Christ himself is our spiritual friend, seeking us out, standing beside us, and speaking up for us in the midst of times when we cannot discern the voice of God from the voice of our night-time fears.
My good friend Barry McLanahan was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He flew important missions rescuing wounded soldiers and bringing in medical supplies. One night a ruckus broke out in the officers' club after too many drinks. They hauled a lot of them off to the brig which was one of those huge metal containers they stored cargo in on ship freighters. They'd replaced the doors with iron bars and-voila!-a makeshift jail. After a frightful, sleepless night, Barry was roused the next morning by the sound of his commanding officer's voice. "McLanahan!" he said, speaking loudly and directly to the MP in charge. He insisted that Barry be released immediately. When the man resisted, the CO said he needed him right away to perform an important mission. "He belongs to me!" he said.
My friends, you belong to Christ. He has won your life at the cost of his own. He comes to call you to himself, and he has important things for you to do:
* Answer the call to faith and find your true life in him.
* Answer the call to service and find your true life work with him.
* Answer the call, for God's sake and yours, but answer the call.
Would you join me in prayer?
Lord God, you are the God who called Samuel, the God who called Jesus, the God who calls each of us and all of us, the calls to faith and the calls to service. We pray that you will speak and your servants will say, "Here I am." We thank you that you equip us when we answer your call. Be with us now as we serve you. For Christ's sake. Amen.