“Our Vocations” Colchester Federated Church, January 14, 2018, (1 Samuel 3:1-10) Second Sunday after Epiphany

Samuel is a young boy and has gone to work in the Temple under the watchful eye of Eli, a Temple priest.  Samuel’s mother Hannah was barren and begged for God’s help to have a child.  In fact, Eli was once sitting down beside the doorpost of the Temple and Hannah showed up, deeply distressed, praying to God, and weeping bitterly.  She made a vow that day—that if God would look on the misery of God’s servant and remember her, she would give to God her child to serve God.  Hannah was carrying on in despair and Eli the priest thought that she was drunk and told her to go away for she was making a spectacle of herself.  But Hannah persisted and said to him, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.  Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”  Eli had compassion for this deeply troubled woman and responded, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” [1]

So, we already know that this child, Samuel—living in the Temple with Eli—is a remarkable person, blessed by God with a mother who promised to give him to God for a life of service.  We see the earnestness of Samuel, hearing his name called in the wee hours of the night and going to Eli to see what he needed.  This happened three times, hearing the voice call out, “Samuel!  Samuel!” as he tried to sleep.  Though Eli finally understood that God was calling out to this child and advised young Samuel to go and lie down, and if God calls you—you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  So Samuel went and lay down for a fourth time and when he heard that voice again, “Samuel!  Samuel!” he was ready and said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”[2]  Samuel would grow into a remarkable prophet and God would always be with him.

Now this story is a good example of mentoring and mentors helping us live into our potentials.  Mentors have a unique way of seeing our potential and bringing out the best in us.  There’s some coaching involved and the sharing of wisdom.  There’s sometimes some tough love mixed in with compassionate understanding.  Samuel would have kept going back and forth to Eli all night long if Eli hadn’t realized what was happening.  That in fact it was God calling the young child and that Samuel needed to stop and listen.  That’s what good mentors do—bring about new understandings by allowing their students to experience something.  We don’t always learn by lectures or reading information or studying even from the experts, sometimes we learn by doing.

Without giving anything major away with the new Stars Wars movie out in theaters right now—The Last Jedi—it’s good, go see it.  We can say that the interplay between mentors and students comes out.  One of the main characters named Rey is seeking to be trained in the Jedi ways by Luke Skywalker who had trained his nephew Ben Solo before he got mixed up with the dark side.  When Rey and Ben meet up, Ben offers to rule with her and teach Rey what he knows of the Force.  Moreover, Luke’s former teacher Yoda makes an appearance when Luke is not living up to his potential.  So we see the effects that mentors have—for good and for ill.  It ends up that even a Jedi Master like Luke Skywalker sometimes loses his way and still had some lessons to learn from his old Jedi Master Yoda.  With knowledge and power can come humility and realizing that we have to be lifelong learners.  We’re not always going to get it right.  And we are fortunate if we have people in our lives who can call us to account and bring us back to the light in those moments when we are just plain lost.  That applies to Jedis with the Force and Christians with Discipleship.  Accountability matters.  If we reach a point where we become unteachable, we’re actually in deep trouble.

That’s one reason why the story of Eli and Samuel is compelling.  Samuel is the embodiment of being a good student and going to his mentor when he believes that he’s being called.  Eli responds and helps.  The story is also compelling because it says something about meaningful work, about vocations and how we glorify God.  Vocation can be defined as a strong feeling of suitability for an occupation.  Remember that Samuel’s mother Hannah promised that he would work for God if God would grant her a child.  Perhaps Samuel didn’t have a great deal of choice when it came to his vocation, but there he was as a child in the Temple learning from Eli—this priest who came before him.

For a long time, vocation was used to refer exclusively to religious work.  Around 1520 Martin Luther took the term back from the Roman Catholic Church who had declared that priests, monks, and nuns had vocations since they were working for God.  But Martin Luther claimed during the Protestant Reformation that a Christian’s true vocation was serving God and the world.  One didn’t have to take a religious vow to practice a vocation.  Luther declared that it was possible for any type of work to be viewed as a vocation if the person working was conscious about how they performed their work for the glorification of God and focused on helping their neighbors.  After all, Jesus taught us to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.  Therefore, a butcher and an innkeeper had a vocation.  A teacher and a farmer had a vocation.  Our buddy Bob Burroughs who wrote this morning’s Choir Anthem had a vocation composing music.

As Professor Robert Benne explains Martin Luther’s idea of vocation: “Each person—lay and clergy alike—is called to work in the world.  In fulfilling their work gladly and conscientiously, they serve their neighbor.  Plain ordinary work is transformed into a Christian vocation as the Christian exercises his [their] faith-active-in-love.  Work is no longer simply a job or occupation; it is a calling, a vocation.  It is a summons from God.”[3]

Claiming that we all have our various vocations gives dignity to the work that we do with our lives.  We all know people who work and do so with integrity and humility.  Whether they are TSA agents or working at Dunkin Donuts or a retirement home, we can tell that they take pride in their work. And we all know people who work and have bad attitudes and maybe don’t have ethical business practices.  What makes work a vocation could be what we put into it.  Do we see what we’re doing as working to praise God and serve our neighbors?  Maybe we do.  Maybe we don’t.  Though it’s worth noting that unfortunately not all work is given equal respect in our country.  Even if we see value in the work that we do, others unfortunately may not.

After graduating from Elon University a semester early, I worked full-time in the coffee shop at Books-A-Million in Burlington, North Carolina.  Actually, I worked 39 hours a week because if I worked 40 hours they would have had to pay for health insurance which they wouldn’t do.  So with my college degree in hand, I made $5.45 an hour plus a few tips.  Times were tough.  Every morning, one of our regulars came to buy a newspaper, drink 4 shots of espresso, and leisurely read while enjoying all that glorious caffeine.  This older retired man was rude and condescending, never deigning to put his money into my outstretched hand.  He would put it right on the counter rather forcefully and never tipped even though I made his drink to his satisfaction almost seven days a week and he paid in cash all the time.  Our whole staff couldn’t really stand him.

When it was official that I was off to Andover Newton, I let my managers know and they both came to the coffee shop that next morning to congratulate me and hear more about this next chapter of my life.  Mr. Snarky 4 Shots of Espresso was clearly listening to our conversation—overhearing that I graduated from Elon and earned a scholarship to Seminary.  The next morning, he was so nice: asking about Andover Newton and the United Church of Christ, telling me places to visit in the Boston area, and he’s a devout Episcopalian by the way.  Even though it was kind-of a relief that the Episcopalians have him and not us, his change in demeanor after overhearing our conversation was so lame.  When I was just a barista in the coffee shop it was okay in his mind to treat me in a particular manner.  But that changed when he learned more of my story . . . and he finally began to leave small tips.

Now schools are closed tomorrow to observe Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day and Dr. King covered many different topics, and one was labor.  The Civil Rights Movement addressed many disparities in our country and the economic realities of racism concerned Dr. King.  He once wrote, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry.  He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”[4]

We live in a country where we can make choices about our vocations.  And no work should be denigrated.  The work that we do can bring lasting value to the people that we serve—whether that’s working in retail or business or education or government or non-profits or out of our homes.  If we reach this understanding of work as vocation it also helps us to help others, to be mentors as we realize that people helped us along the way too.  We can address continued economic disparities and do our part to make our society more just and loving, ensuring that people are helped and even mentored to live into their God-given potentials.  So that if we have a young Samuel in our life who’s confused about who’s calling out him, we can be like Eli who instructs him to be still and listen to hear the voice of God.  May whatever we do serve one another, for God’s glory.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] 1 Samuel 1:15-17, NRSV.
[2] 1 Samuel 3:10.
[3] Robert Benne, “Martin Luther on the Vocations of the Christian,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia, http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-363
[4] The King Center, http://www.thekingcenter.org/blog/mlk-quote-week-all-labor-uplifts-humanity-has-dignity-and-importance-and-should-be-undertaken