Learning to Listen

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’, Cuddesdon and St Giles’, Horspath on Sunday 14th January 2018.

Reading: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20].

A few years ago a very kind student whose parents had just bought an old Rectory in the Lake District, offered it to us for a summer holiday in exchange for looking after their two mad cats whilst they were away themselves.  It was a beautiful place, just above Ulswater.  One morning I got up to look outside the window, Jonathan was downstairs making tea, and I was confronted with the most remarkable sight.  The whole of the lane outside the house was full of sheep, bleating and moaning as they were being shepherded to new pastures by umpteen dogs.  So he could also experience this amazing sight, I shouted down to Jonathan, “Johnny there are sheep in the road”.  His cry came back, “What do you want me to do about it?”


We have all had those moments when something we have said has been heard in a completely different way to how we intended it.  It is just one of the accepted pitfalls of communication on whatever level, sometimes it can result in a humorous incident of misunderstanding, like the one I’ve just recounted but sometimes it can lead to great hurt which has the potential to fracture relationships and communities for days if not years to come unless the initial misconception is not named and healed.  We live in an age like no other when the opportunities to be in constant communication with others across the world is unprecedented.  However, we also find that this revolution in social media brings with it an ever greater risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.  I suspect that all of us have received at some point a reply to an email which reveals just how unreliable that quick, if effective means of talking to another person, can be.  Even the most carefully worded emails can very easily fail to express the nuances of what we had originally intended to say and lead to confusion and misunderstanding.  Thankfully those unfortunate and regrettable messages, tweets and texts which we may fire off in anger, hurt and haste do not lead, like some, to global headlines and the threat of war but they equally need to be counterbalanced if our careless words are not to cost lives and do unspeakable damage which may take years to repair.


Equally in our age of unprecedented communication we are beginning to learn news ways of coping with the forms of miscommunication that it may bring.  The old saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is no longer good enough in response to those who are trolled or cyber bullied.   Email etiquette is forcing us to choose our words more carefully but also discern those messages which may come to us in the heat of the moment, forgive them and simply let them go through deletion.  We are beginning, through social media, to listen to each other in new and often more forgiving ways.  Not necessarily taking words at face value but trying to read between, behind and under the lines to ensure that we hear another properly.  We are learning once again to listen.


It is this task of learning to listen in new ways that lies behind our first reading this morning from the First Book of Samuel.  The boy Samuel was living in an age when the word of the Lord was rarely heard, visions were not widespread.  The latter phrase suggests that what the author of the book means by the ‘word of the Lord’ is not the mediated written word but more the direct voice of God as heard by Abraham and Moses in the burning bush.  Such locutions had been delegated to the role of the king, however unreliable he may be.  So the people of God in Samuel’s time were not used to hearing the Lord speaking directly to them, and hence no longer expected to hear his word themselves.


Given this context, it’s not surprising therefore that Samuel completely misunderstands who it is that is calling to him in the night and rushes to the chief priest Eli as any good servant would.  We are told directly that Samuel does not know the Lord and his voice has never been revealed to him before.  He does not expect to hear the voice of Lord and so does not know it when he hears it.  But it also seems that Eli doesn’t know the Lord well either.  It takes three attempts before Eli suddenly realises what is going on.  It is only because Eli begins to listen in a new way that the possibility that this may be the Lord speaking directly to someone becomes a reality.  Importantly the Lord wants Eli to discover this new way of listening for himself.  He does not identify himself as the Lord to Samuel when he calls to him, it is Eli who must do that.  Neither does he give up, the Lord is persistent, through all the misunderstanding he waits until Eli can hear him in this new way.  The stage has been set, the space has been opened, a new way of listening to God has now been made possible.  It is now that Eli tells Samuel what to do and what to say: ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”.


I was very grateful to Bishop Humphrey for a tip which he gave one morning in his 8 o’clock homily.  He said, if the lectionary leaves out some of the verses in a passage, always go back to the original text and see why.  Because someone, somewhere has made a decision about how we are to understand this section of Scripture and it is often to make it more palatable to our modern ears.  That is fine on some level but it can easily mean we water down the word of God and are prone misinterpret it.  How right he was, for here we find that indeed the editor’s pen has enabled us to shorten the reading and leave out the actual words the Lord says to Samuel.  For the words which the Lord has to say are ones which will make ‘both ears of anyone who hears it tingle’ and especially the ears of Eli.


Poor Samuel, can you imagine what it must have been like next morning to have to tell Eli what the Lord said to him.  ‘On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them.  Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever’.  It is a hard message to speak and a hard message to hear.  But Eli has already begun to listen, he has woken up and into this new forum of openness he can hear the Lord’s words, and accept them.  Where before the voice of the Lord was not expected to be heard now because of Eli there is free communication between the Lord and his people, there is a new relationship and expectation that the Lord will speak.  The people who once did not hear, now listen and ‘none of the Lord’s words fall to the ground’.


At this time of open and free communication amongst all people with all its potential and pitfalls, the story of Samuel’s call invites us to consider once again who we are listening to and how we are listening.   Do we even expect to hear the voice of God or is it drowned out by endless chatter?   Do we listen to those who make the most noise, or can we hear those whose voices have been too often silenced?  The story of Samuel also challenges all of us to reconsider the extent to which we speak.  Do our words seek to build people up, and enable relationships based on mutual love, compassionate and reconciliation?  In our world of words we are called once again into the silent presence of the Living Word, to kneel at his feet lost in wonder, love and praise.  It is here and out of this wordless silence that we will learn once again to listen and to speak that the word of the Lord may once again be heard in our lands.  Amen.